I ran into an aide who cares for a man down the hall in the laundry room the other day and she asked me about my intentions for the future. When I told her of my aspiration for ordination, to live a spiritual life, she responded, “Why? You are young – you have to live a normal life! You have to go to college, have a wife, have kids, like a normal life.”
When I asked her why I had to do that, she answered, “It’s normal! It’s what everyone does!”
Now, I’ve heard a bit of skepticism and confusion from people when I mention my interest in the monastic life, but I hadn’t yet heard someone voice their opposition so squarely until I heard her statement.
To put her logic in the form of a syllogism:
A life including going to college and having a wife and kids has to be lived because it is normal and what everyone does.
I don’t know what the causes were that led me to have absolutely no faith in this statement whatsoever. Whatever they were, I’m infinitely grateful for them. Actually, because of the education I’ve received, I saw why this syllogism is entirely faulty.
By being exposed to different cultures and ways of life, I learned that it actually isn’t true that everyone goes to college, gets married, and has kids. I also learned, especially driven into me through my post-Holocaust Jewish upbringing, that being a thing that everyone does is not at all a valid reason for having to do something. Slavery has been quite normal in certain places at certain times. Raping women who are lesbians is normal in some places.
Actually, if I think about it, the sentiment expressed by words like “have to,” “should,” and “must” don’t apply to real life. They deny personal responsibility and personal efficacy. To orient one’s whole life directed by one of those terms would be a horrible imprisonment!
The conversation I had with this aide reminded me of the importance to question. If there is any single habit that I think will bring stable happiness to oneself and to others, it would be to smile at others with a mind of love. But a second habit that’s necessary for the welfare of the world is to question.
Today, I will not only question the story that mainstream culture tells about the purpose of life, but I will question my own perceptions and the stories I make up myself. I’ll be vigilantly on guard, watching for when my own disturbing attitudes like anger and desirous attachment overshadow my good sense.
I won’t just accept my judgments and thoughts about others and I won’t just latch onto my own opinions and views. I’ll question my thoughts, knowing that doing so will make me wiser and kinder in the long run.