Why I'm wary of inspirational quotes

According to the going social media trends in inspirational quotes, everyone is responsible for their own actions, you should never put off until tomorrow the fun you could have today, the worst mistakes in life are made by being too cautious and good parents are those who stick around and provide unconditional love.

I get the impression that our western social standards are schizophrenic. 

I sometimes wonder what other cultures think of these western social ideals. Take my Vietnamese relatives and the Vietnamese shop keepers down the street. They would give short shrift to ideals of seizing the day and following your heart's desire for the sake of you-the shining individual.

In fact, women, especially young women, in many cultures seem to get the brunt of collective and long-range modes of thinking. 

In many cultures, it is a person's ultimate duty to stand by their family and create stability. Beauty is found in these cultures, but it is often the beauty of elegance and home. This may be seen as an old-fashioned and oppressive worldview by modern westerners. But it is at least a coherent one.

I'm not actually advocating the oppression of women or the suppression of individuality. But I'm not certain that our own cultural norms offer us the healthiest possible alternative. 

We as western women (and men too actually) are told that we are simply uninspired and lack gumption if we are not out fulfilling our dreams of creative work, travel and romance. But at the same time, in the same culture and often in the next meme, we are told that we bear full and merciless responsibility for our every impulsive action. And heaven forbid, we have children and then decide that our heart's desire and creative passion isn't devoting our every waking moment to molding our children into prodigies. 

The cultural ideals in some places may be restrictive. Ours are crazy-making. And I think we can do better.

I've seen plenty  of these inspirational quotes, but today's rant was sparked by this little gem, "The greatest mistakes we make are the risks we don't take. If you think something will make you happy, go for it, so that you don't live your life asking 'what if" and telling yourself 'If only.'"

Before you nod compulsively to this seemingly wise and motivational statement, take a closer look: "If you think something will make you happy..."

Indeed? Happy for how long? For five minutes? For five days? For as long as it takes to raise the resulting child, break the resulting addiction or pay off the resulting debt? 

Okay, I sound like an overcautious curmudgeon there and I have taken more than my share of hair-brained risks in my day, so I really shouldn't be championing the conservative side of whatever argument might be perceived. 

It isn't even just the poor phrasing, of this quote that got way too many glowing comments and adoring likes on social media for my stomach. It is merely the hypocritical social expectations of our times. 

Creative commons image by Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

Creative commons image by Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

If a friend asked me for advice when weighing whether or not to take a risky leap (though I assure you no one has asked me), this would be my advice or my version of feet-on-the-ground inspiration:

Periodically we come to crossroads in life where we have a choice. In fact, we pass through more crossroads than we usually realize, missing possible turn-offs, detours, dead-ends and short cuts due to forward momentum and habit. Often we don't know how major the crossroads is even when we do stop to take notice. We only know that in retrospect.

I remember one such crossroads I encountered, when I was about to graduate from university. The president of the university called me into his office. I had never personally met him before and had no family connections, so this was really kind of a big deal. I was graduating first in my class, but I didn't know that at the time.

Anyway, he sat me down and tried very hard to convince me to apply for a Rhodes scholarship to do graduate work at Oxford with the backing of my university. I turned the opportunity down on the spot, politely enough I recall, but not really with an understanding of how major it was to be asked to do this by the president of the university. I was twenty-two and pretty darn naive.

Oh, it was tempting. I loved universities and I can get lost in academic inquiry. I had romantic visions about the ivy-covered walls of Oxford. And I did want to travel. 

Still, I turned down the chance to continue my education debt free in a wonderful environment because I wanted to be an international journalist. I saw opportunities slipping through my fingers and I wanted to enter the world of work NOW.

I got on a bus to New York City and from there a plane to Prague and a train over the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Kazakhstan. In the next ten years, I made two shoestring documentaries, wrote for national newspapers and magazines, covered a small war, traveled in 30 countries, lived on 5 continents, led a successful protest movement against a needless military incursion into one small country and wrote my brains out.

After ten years, I was broke, still almost entirely unknown, without any graduate degree and without a stable job or career. I had kids and I'm still without a stable job or career. I write and teach English and have a pretty mundane life. Journalism has changed and the kind of international stringer work I did in 1999 pretty much no longer exists.

If I had taken the Rhodes opportunity, which was more tempting than I wanted to admit at the time, I would have missed the end of a journalism era--a time when freelancers really could go out, grab a story, pitch it and write the national headlines.

And what I did I give up? I really don't know what wonders I might have found on that other road, but I still love research and universities. I probably could have really done something cool at Oxford if I had tried for it and won the scholarship (not a certainty but I had a good shot). I probably would be a lot better off today and have a lot more prospects for my future.

But the experiences and work that made me who I am? How could I give that up? 

This is the thing. If you ask me "what if" or tell me "if only," I can sometimes feel almost sick that I didn't take certain chances or in some cases didn't let other chances lie. Knowing what I know now, I might just go for the Rhodes scholarship. Knowing that journalism as we knew it would be over by 2004. I had only a few years to do that anyway and I had to give up... well, everything else really. My brief journalism career came at the expense of all the glowing opportunities of my twenties.

And if I knew what I would have gained on that other road--which I don't even now--I might well want to go back and change the past. BUT I didn't know those things. I stood at the crossroads and knowing only what I knew then, I still stand by that decision.

You have to take the best shot you can at happiness and a fulfilling life.

Sometimes you can't take certain opportunities. Sometimes being an ethical person means you stay and take care of a sick person or a child and don't pursue your dreams of travel right then. Sometimes caution causes you not to quit your job and sell your house to become an artist and go eat, pray, love for a year. Sometimes the leap of faith you take may land you in a situation much more restrictive than the one you left. And sometimes... just sometimes a completely illogical and incautious risk leads to the most wonderful results.

And you can look back and think "Oh, I should have listened to those inspiration quotes and taken the plunge." (Or if your hardships came from listening to inspirational quotes, you can cry, "Oh, if only I hadn't listened to such drivel and taken such risks?")

Alternatively, you could look back and say "I did the best I could with what I knew at the time."

And if that statement is really true and you weren't making decisions under the twin spells of fear or delusion, you've got nothing to regret.