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It's Not What You Do

A friend of mine recently won his first case as a trial lawyer. He let everyone know on Facebook and received plenty of “likes.” But then a week later, he posted something different. He said he felt confused. He didn’t understand why he wasn’t happy.

Out for brunch with a different set of friends, I listened as one announced that she was dating a new guy. The first thing she mentioned was that he is a doctor, and everyone congratulated her. But I felt strangely disturbed. Why were none of her friends asking about what this guy was actually like? Couldn’t he be a doctor but also a jerk?

These two separate events in my life have been sticking out in my mind since the election. Is it possible that there is so much emphasis on career in the US that we subconsciously believe that through success, we can somehow earn contentment? The Declaration of Independence does describe happiness as a “pursuit.” Could we be forgetting to look for potential partners who possess characteristics like kindness (which studies show is the most important quality in a successful relationship), rather than examining their career potential? Could this all be related somehow to our electing Donald Trump?

The importance of career in the US is embedded in the American Dream, our greatest ideal. And there is indisputably greatness in a nation where anyone can succeed. But is there also something harmful that has gone unnoticed? Our capitalist system highlights profit and our society lauds those with good jobs. Where else besides the US (at least in cities) is the first question asked when you meet someone, “What do you do?”

As my grandfather was known to ask, “So what?” Shouldn’t we accept that this is our reality, as my friend put it when I tried to engage him in a philosophical conversation on his way to work. “Whether that’s true or not, it doesn’t make me any earlier to my 3:30 meeting.” And I get that. Everyone “has their little space to fill” as Tom Petty put it. Besides, I live in the New York bubble, and ever since the election, I have to entertain the possibility that I am completely out of touch with the rest of the country. But I’m a writer AND Jewish, so I question. Although it’s easier not to, I believe it’s important to question your country, look beyond your era, and challenge what society is telling you to believe. As my lawyer friend demonstrated, it’s dangerous not to.

We voted for someone with visible immoral baseness. Donald Trump is successful in his career yet he outwardly displays bigotry, egotism, and dishonesty. We may have had leaders who possessed these qualities in the past, but what we’ve never had before is a president who openly used them to got elected president. That’s why this night is different from all other nights.

And so here comes my question. This is a bipartisan question. It is a question many of us do not want to ask. What does this say about us? We can’t be afraid to look ourselves in the mirror. The man we elected is a reflection of us.

Though I’m more confident in the importance of asking that question, I did arrive at an answer, which I’d love to hear disputed: our emphasis on success and career has taken the place of improving character. Focusing on your career is not inherently wrong; we just spend so much time on it that we’ve somehow forgotten that it’s not what we do that defines us.

Somewhere along the line, we lost touch with the importance of values. Whatever the reason, whether it be the greed and competitive nature inherent in a capitalist system, or the shift to egocentrism with the “me” generation in the 1960s, or our meritocracy, or our scientific age that stresses rational thought over religion with its moral code, or something intrinsic in human nature, we elected a man who demonstrates the kinds of values we would never pass on to our kids. Words like kindness, empathy, altruism, and modesty should replace career, money, and success in discussions with your family at the dinner table-and at brunch with friends. Spend less time trying to earn promotions and more preparing for how you will respond in moments of moral conflict. Bad career decisions make life more difficult; immoral ones stay with you forever. It is not what you do that defines you; it’s who you are.

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© 2015 by Jonah Kruvant