Seasonal Transitions: Balancing Individualism with Family

This is a season of transitions.  As schools close for the summer, college students return home after exams, and families embark on summer vacations, there’s an inevitable adjustment – sometimes uncomfortable – as each family member is thrown from the school year routine of individual trajectories into a sudden sense of enforced togetherness.  This time can be particularly frustrating for the children in the family who’ve spent the year growing increasingly independent, but now feel they’re taking a step backward as they follow the dictates of the family unit.  It can be equally jarring to the parents who find themselves refereeing a sudden spike in sibling squabbles and feeling guilty because they miss the quiet time they enjoyed on school days.

Observing how other cultures, as well as previous generations, have dealt with this issue is instructive.  In my book Seeing More Colors:  A Guide to a Richer Life, I give the following example.  When my wife and I were in Bali, Indonesia, we had a guide who was a young father in his thirties.  He proudly stated that he had just returned from a one-month vacation with his family, spent doing what gave him more joy than anything else imaginable:  he constructed his father’s grave.  The family and community are paramount in Bali.  It is common to have several generations of a family living together in the same compound.  Families belong to both clans and cooperative groups of neighbors called banjars, who assist each other at festivals, family gatherings, and at times of crisis.  This model has worked for centuries.

It is easy to understand the advantages of seeking opportunities wherever one finds them, such as accepting a job far from family roots, but there is a high price to pay.  When my parents were growing up, there were always relatives living with them.  My parents both came from large families that emigrated to the United States from eastern Europe and settled in Houston, Texas.  There are countless family stories about  more settled members helping new arrivals to become more established.  The actions of the previous generations helped foster very close relationships in my generation.  To this day, I have cousins who are like brothers and sisters.

In contrast, a considerable part of the mythology of the United States is centered around the exploits of heroic individuals, from the entrepreneur who starts his own company to the lone cowboy who explores the open range.  A book that I have read many times through the years, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden emphasizes the importance of discovering things on your own.

Psychology professor David G. Myers writes in The Pursuit of Happiness, “We need to balance me-thinking with we-thinking.”  Self-actualized people—those role models studied by my psychology professor Abraham Maslow—as well as many members of my own family and friends, appear to have achieved this balance.  I admit it continues to be a struggle for me, but I find it helpful to remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy:  The only gift is a portion of thyself.

A Meaningful Career Choice: Understanding Strengths and Limitations

Most of us know someone who’s at a career crossroad, whether it’s the freshly minted graduate, the neighbor who’s struggling to reinvent himself after being “downsized,” or the former retiree whose post-recession nest egg seems to have shrunk from ostrich size to that of a hummingbird.

At any age, it can be challenging to discover our individual aptitudes and abilities, much less find a career to match them.  This process certainly has been difficult for me.  Every job entails an element of drudgery and frustration; the challenge is to make it as enjoyable and meaningful as possible.

Ghana photoIn my book Seeing More Colors:  A Guide to a Richer Life, one of the recurring themes is that we can create and shape our own realities.  Authentic power comes not from what we are doing, but how we are doing it.  Although some occupations might appear more significant than others, there are ways to make any type of work feel more meaningful.

An illustration:  Two bricklayers in fourteenth-century France were working on the side of the road.  When a traveler stopped to inquire what they were doing, one replied, “I am working with bricks.”  The other proudly stated, “I am building a cathedral!”

In addition, if we have an accurate understanding of our individual strengths and limitations, we are more likely to benefit from realistic expectations and the presence of mind to adjust when situations do not turn out as anticipated.  During my psychiatry rotation in medical school, my expectations were unrealistic.  I enjoyed interacting with patients and felt as if I truly was connecting with them.  Unfortunately, behavior patterns do not alter dramatically overnight.  Despite several therapy sessions with my patients, what I had thought were my brilliant insights did not always results in significant life changes for them.  I found myself frustrated by the lack of immediate, tangible results.  My expectations did not match reality.

Eventually, I realized that psychiatric treatment was typically a long process and that I did not have the patience to wait for the anticipated outcomes.  Consequently, I turned to orthopedic surgery, primarily because an immediate tangible result was the rule rather than the exception.  A wrist was broken and I could set it; a joint became worn out and I could replace it.  Furthermore, I could continue to utilize my interest in people and their behavior.  I became more aware of my false expectations and limitations, and was therefore able to make a better-informed career decision.

Each of us has a certain skill set.  Ghana photoAuthor Gary Zukav elaborates upon this idea in Soul Stories:  “Some people have hunches, others ideas, some hear music, others see pictures, some hear words.  You can find your way by paying attention to what is inside you.”