There are moments in each of our lives that are pivotal. Experiences that shift our direction, sometimes like a violent storm rising up on a long ocean voyage. Other events are subtle, as if we’re floating down a river that suddenly splits but we don’t notice because we’re too busy hiding the cooler full of beer. Regardless of their approach these times in our lives cause us to change our goals, the way we think and the way we interact with one another. Easily one could argue that’s every moment of every day. Seemingly random interactions cause variations in our activity over which we have no control. I shrug at the thought. “Of course they do,” is my response. The “big ones” though, with a little pondering we can isolate those exposures that really caused us to change.
Once upon a time when I was a brash sophomore in college, my Great Aunt and Uncle came to visit. I’d not had much one-on-one time with them prior. Usually because they wanted to take me out for a daily excursion and buy me something. As a child I had zero interest in what they wanted to teach me. Everything had to do with money and status. It made sense, my uncle was one of the last “rural” doctors in West Central Indiana. He’d made his way through life practicing family medicine. Undoubtedly he worked hard, they lived modestly, but their perspective, to me, was that of a large fish in a small pond. To have them visit me for a whole weekend made me nervous.
Though I no longer consider myself to be religious, that is the way I was raised. My aunt and uncle were not. At the time, I was attending a school heavily affiliated with a particular Christian denomination, this meant nothing to them. My best friend growing up was black, some of my college friends were from Palestine. My great aunt referred to black people as backward, “I don’t understand why they put those bowls in their lips.” As you can imagine, we never broached the conversation about the Middle East. It was a scenario I’d become accustomed to: sit quietly, be polite, don’t argue. I reasoned later on this was due to their perceived wealth, which my mother suggested in confidence I might inherit one day. My tongue literally bled through dinner.
Several questions came up during our meal regarding my professional intentions. Like a job interview, not a conversation with a loving relative. That week I remember distinctly arguing with myself about whether or not to change my major from physics to history. Math and science fascinated me, but I wasn’t quick enough. Labs were frustrating because I was usually the last one out. I understood the concepts but had to try much, much harder than my peers to keep up. It just so happened I had started an Ancient History class with a new professor on campus. His energy and passion for the subject matter resonated with me more than anything I’d encountered up to that point. I felt free to connect ideas or ask questions that were open-ended. I shared my struggle to decide between science and humanities with my aunt and uncle.
“Why would you want to study history?” my uncle asked. “What can you do with that?” I had no idea. What I did know was that my uncle wasn’t asking me what kind of job I could get, he wanted to know if I could make money. My response was simple, “I want to do something that makes me happy.” The memory of him placing his silverware down on his plate and leaning back in his chair is as vivid now as it was sixteen years ago. Even in his early eighties his judgmental gaze was piercing. These were people who grew up in a different world. They remembered the Great Depression because they lived through it. Logically that experience dictated their reasoning for living so modestly. After all, you can’t accumulate wealth by spending it. Expectations were that we, my sister and I, would work hard in life to achieve the same “independence”. The suggestion that studying history was not the equivalent of working hard drove me mad.
Somehow I muddled my way through an explanation of why history was so intriguing to me. Maybe I’d go on to graduate school, become a professor. Maybe I’d conduct amazing research and uncover the mysteries of the pyramids! No matter what I managed to conjure as a justifiable reason to do something I loved, the look of disappointment remained. Later, after returning to my dorm for the evening, I walked to use the restroom. My uncle followed because his physical state would not allow him to last the car ride back to their hotel before having to relieve himself. Standing next to me at a urinal, awkwardly, he stared at the wall in front of him as I did the same. He inhaled a very deep breath before saying, “I understand you want to do something that makes you happy. What you need to understand is that only two percent of life is happiness. You’re going to have to figure out what the other ninety-eight percent is.”
In that moment, it was the single most depressing thing I’d ever heard.
Apart from the initial shock of the statement, I was overcome with sadness for my uncle. Had this been his whole life? What an awful thing, to grow up believing that true freedom and happiness could only be experienced through material means. Perhaps it was a byproduct of generational upbringing. Maybe it was because he considered himself a “worldly” man. I was no longer angry for his determined pressing on me. I felt sorry for him. Either way, I decided then and there my life would not suffer the same fate. Damn the inheritance. To hell with what they, or anyone else in my family thought of me, my path would be my own.
The next day I marched into my history professor’s office, proclaimed I wanted to switch majors and that he was going to be my new adviser. No questions about it. I’ve never regretted that choice. My study of history has given me far more advantage in my professional, and personal life, in my opinion, than many other degrees could have. It worked because it was right for me. I’ve been a teacher, an insurance agent, a banker, a political activist, a non-profit advocate and a professional fundraiser. It’s been a wild ride and I can’t imagine having experienced it any other way.
Have I ever experienced moments where I felt unhappy? Of course, who hasn’t? Usually within a short period of time though, I’m able to look back on those moments and realize I was not unhappy with my life, just my situation. And each time I’ve been able to change my circumstances for the better. Each time I’ve found myself happy. I have a lot in my life to be proud of. In terms of “things”, I have much more than is required to survive in this lifetime and that is infinitely more than many other people. Turns out I did figure out what that other 98% in life was supposed to be. More happiness.