Dear Mom and Dad: I’m sorry, I’m not going to grow up and be a high-powered tax lawyer nor will I go through the Business School and compromise my beliefs for a six- or seven-figure salary. Getting rich has its appeals, but frankly, it’s not one of my goals. I don’t intend to buy my happiness. Instead of using wealth to avoid the stresses of everyone’s lives, like insurance costs, children’s education and retirement savings, I will work to eliminate those stresses. It will mean a lower-paying job. I will not tone down my fight for a better world even though it might limit my career options.
I know you’re proud of me. You are proud of me for my achievements so far. But you’re also proud because I have potential. I attend an elite university and I am earning the credentials that can easily be turned into a comfortable, successful life with a wife and two kids and a three car garage and vacations and maybe a sailboat. Yes, that would probably ensure my happiness. I could retire at 60. See the world. Give to charity. Hate my boss. I’d be an American success story and you’d be rightfully proud of me.
Monetary success is the easy answer to all of life’s problems. If I make enough, I am exempt from the problems in the United States. High insurance costs? Forget universal health care, I’ll just get rich. Social Security slowly vaporizing? Don’t bother changing that, I’ll just contact an investment banker who will build up an impressive portfolio from contributions I started making when I landed that high paying job at 25. Cancer-causing pesticides in my genetically-altered food? Well, no point in changing the practices of huge factory farmers, I’ll just pony up a little more for organic food. Pollution? Global Warming? Doesn’t bother me, I’ve got a nice house in the forest and the best air filters money can buy. Sure my kid has asthma, but I can afford the inhalers. My kids will go to private school to avoid our failing public ones. Then it’s off to college for them so they too can avoid the problems of the world.
When did life become only worrying about my own happiness? What happened to community? What’s so wrong with caring about the happiness of my neighbor who works her ass off but is still one of the 43 million Americans who can’t afford health insurance? I’m not willing to ignore my feelings that the world is headed in the wrong direction. I will not sell my beliefs for the promise of a good job. I’m not willing to moderate my political writing for fear that a future employer would be scared by my anti-corporate outlook. I will not promise never to get arrested for non-violently demonstrating my beliefs.
I won’t buy a big house in the hills, hide for 50 years, donate a couple thousand to charity and call it a day. Instead I’ll working from the ground up, starting now. I can taking an active role in the way things work. I can write letters to Congress. I can call up local representatives. I can have political discussions with my neighbors and engage the community. We can work together to create new ideas for a better world. I can put up posters and attend meetings and rallies. And yes, maybe I can go to a protest. Maybe I’ll get tear-gassed and maybe I’ll be arrested for civil disobedience.
Activism and future success aren’t mutually exclusive. I can fight for good and still have a decent job and provide for my family. I’m not actively looking to get arrested. I’m just telling you that given the choice of doing what’s right or holding down my feelings in order to secure a job later, I’ll take the former. I refuse to be shackled in my actions because I’m fearful of lost job opportunities in the future.
My grades are good enough. Sure I might get a few more B’s than I might otherwise. Yes, that might make the difference between getting that great job and that merely good one. But let’s face it, I’m a child of privilege, I’ve attended and succeeded at a top university. I’m a damn hard worker. I’m not going to die penniless. My activism opens more doors than it closes.
I know you have my best interests at heart. You have years more experience and I know my active role in the world worries you. But please, don’t think the alternative is better. Apathy and self-centered goals for success are far more dangerous for the world. Watching the world crumble around me while I’m safely cushioned by my savings account is wrong. Yes, my activism lends itself to a more uncertain personal future. But it also allows for a future I might want to live in.
Jess Piskor can be reached at email@example.com.