Have you ever felt a tug at your heartstrings, a subtle sadness creeping in when you stumble upon places or situations that seem to lack any prospects of growth? I used to feel that often, every time I would visit a slow-paced shopping center, walk past a janitor, and so forth. I was caught in the grip of a bit of depression and feeling bad for these people whenever I encountered small towns, folks working jobs that appeared to offer no upward mobility, and those quaint little shopping centers that seemed frozen in time. It was as if the sense of stagnation reminded me of a miserable life I could end up moving towards if I’m not careful. But those are assumptions I developed, from who knows where – society, culture, and myself. I started to uncover the layers of assumptions about others’ happiness that had quietly taken root within me.
Back in those days, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness for these scenes that seemed to lack the movement of progress. The dead-end-job employees at the local hotel, the individuals behind the counter at the slow-paced sushi store – especially if their expressions seemed to tell stories of monotony, of lives lived on a loop, of a mediocre existence. It wasn’t just their narrative that moved me; it was the reflection of my own fears of moving towards a similar mundane life. Life is meant to be more than that. I knew there was more potential. And yet it felt like that dreadful life of microwave dinners, a boring job, and a boring life would be mine if I wasn’t careful enough.
Sure, I think some of these folk were living like that. I’ve worked jobs where I’ve interacted with them before and learned enough about them to confirm that. But some of these people were happy. Who am I to assume they were just frustrated and unhappy all the time? These lives, these rhythms, were not prisoners of stagnation; they were dances of contentment in their own right. There were those who found solace and happiness in the unhurried life of rural areas, the charm of close-knit relationships, and the embrace of simplicity. It wasn’t a life less lived; it was just a life differently lived. Money wasn’t the sole currency of joy, and speed wasn’t the only way to measure progress. Some had even tried the city life and didn’t like it. They had chosen the life that suited them best.
It was as if these stories were unmasking my assumptions one by one, revealing a world that had been hidden from my view. Where did my beliefs about success come from? Culture? American society? Genetics? Family? All of the above? Probably. I was brought up with parents who valued getting into a great university and getting good grades so that I could get a high-status or high-income job. While it probably brought some of these assumptions into my unconscious, I am grateful because it set up a mindset and drive for success and a better life that other peers may never have obtained because there was no influence. As far as these beliefs about how “status or income = success”, I’m definitely not alone as you’ll find many with the same assumptions walking through a city or town.
I still get that twinge of sadness at times when I run into someone like that – the young immigrant housekeeper with an accent. Do they like that job? Are they happy? Are they happier than when they were in their own country? Do they feel like they have a future or some chance of upward mobility? Is the job just a stepping stone? Or do they feel doomed and depressed to the life and job they have? These are questions that pop into my head and I often don’t have more than a moment or don’t feel it’s the right situation to ask. One can only guess based on their body language and facial expressions.
At the end of the day, my duty is not to make everyone else happy and fix their lives. What I have learned is that I don’t need to make assumptions too deeply about how bad their life is. Not all of them are sad. Some may be happy or feel grateful. I mean, just making it into this country is a blessing for many. It is, as they call it, the land of opportunity. And I’ve found that some just have the natural inclination to bring happiness to almost any situation no matter what their job or life is like. Don’t make assumptions that they’re not already where they want to be or what their state is.
You have enough on your plate worrying about your own life, so don’t overburden yourself with others. Many of us are often not where we want to be yet; we’re working towards a job we enjoy more, a lifestyle we love more, the relationships/health/place we want to be. The best we can hope for is to try our best to move towards our goals and enjoy the journey.
The journey from melancholy to understanding was a road less traveled, yet it has transformed the way I see the world. Those towns, the shopkeepers, the slow-paced life – they are no longer symbols of a static existence. The local sushi store that always seems dead out front may not actually be going out of business; perhaps, they get a short, profitable burst during rush hours. Life’s beauty lies not just in its relentless march for more status or wealth but also in its moments of stillness, in the stories written at a different pace. I personally still find greater value in more opportunities, income, and the luxuries that come with it. But I realize now that you can’t yuck someone else’s yum, and everyone has a different idea what their rich, dream life is. For some, it’s starting a family in a farm or small town with a modest job. It’s not necessarily the luxuries of travel and big city living with some high-status, high-complexity job. Who is to say that one is better than another?