It’s a surprisingly icy gust of wind that ushers in the crisp air of autumn I’ve so long awaited. Finally the torcherous heat of the Mie summer subsides, marking the 1/4 point of our year-long contract. In the lead-up to our three-month-iversary in this country, echoes of family, friends, newly-met acquaintances, and random strangers on the train bounce through my head: “What the heck are you doing here anyways?”
While it’s tempting to attempt to answer, to what end are we here? What do we want to do after? Where is this experience going to get us? I.e. how can we best describe this on our C.V.s afterwards? I’m afraid I must abstain.
Although it can easily be described as such, Japan for us is not a means to some other end; though it may open more paths for us, that is not its purpose. Yes, teaching English and living abroad may be looked upon kindly by future employers or future educational institutes, especially in the increasingly-international world we live in, that’s not why we’re here. In a similar way, university for me was never a means to some other end but an end in itself. I didn’t go to university to get a degree that could get me a job; though that is one potential outcome, it was never my primary goal. University for me held far more value than can be reduced to a piece of paper, even if said piece of paper has a shiny border, important-looking seal, and disappointingly digitized electronic signatures.
Our world and our education-to-career system wants to itemize and calculate and put a market worth to every life experience we have, but is that all our lives are worth to us? Personally I’ve objected to the mentality that every step in life is to prepare you for the next step: preschool > kindergarten > elementary school > middle school > high school > university > career > retirement > death. Regardless of whether we are “beings unto death” or beings unto eternal life, this living towards the next best thing regrettably reduces the value of the experiences of the present.
While there is a bit of “carpe diem” in this theory, by no means do I intend to shirk responsibility for the future by living hedonistically in the moment. Rather, I think each experience holds meaning in relation to the greater whole. Not necessarily linearly, like a chronological diary noting your achievements, but more like a perpetual craft that you keep gluing stuff to throughout life – a piece of macaroni here, a concert ticket there, a university diploma here, a ninja shuriken there…
A wise senator I once worked for impressed on me this memorable way of thinking about people: there are two types of people. The first type have a goal that they work towards their whole lives – they want to be a doctor, or a human rights lawyer, or a zamboni driver, or like one cute little African Children’s Choir kid always says: “The next president of Uganda.” If they never reach their goal, they might spend the rest of their lives disappointed in themselves. If they do reach it, they might find themselves asking, “okay… now what?” The second type don’t necessarily have an end goal, but that doesn’t mean they float through life purposelessly: they have many experiences along the way, try to learn what works for them and what doesn’t work for them as they go, and can end up in some very cool roles and places. The senator I worked for – who has had a fascinating past as a lawyer, judge, and ambassador to name a few roles – claims to be of the latter variety. I would put myself there also.
I cannot fault those who live ambitiously towards some end – this has been drilled into us since childhood, since which time we are constantly asked unending variations of the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” But I’ve noticed a tendency for others to find fault in a reluctance to answer these questions definitively.
It was J.R.R. Tolkein who wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.” At a young age, I was christened “my little wanderer” by my grandmother. I’ve wandered to Japan and am hoping to wander around quite a bit more. For to me, wandering is much more meaningful than being confined to a straight line. So to answer the question, “what the heck are you doing here?” I guess my answer would have to be, “just living.”