The War for a Meaningful Life
By Oussama Jamal
As a person whose drive is continuous learning, I have always been passionate about exploring new cultures and learning about their different ideologies. In pursuit of expanding my knowledge, I decided to take this curiosity further by enrolling in a variety of interesting courses at my university, with a focus on diverse cultural perspectives. I came across the Chinese Culture course and promptly enrolled, as I had heard so much about the great achievements of the nation, particularly those of its students. However, I was shocked when I reached the chapter on the Chinese Education System, as it was entirely different from what I had anticipated. I learned about the concept known as "involution," which describes the mounting pressure on Chinese students to perform well in all areas of their lives. Although I value the diversity and complexity of cultural and societal traditions, I also recognize that they can pressure individuals to conform to norms that may not align with their true selves. I gained greater insight into this issue through a lifestyle aimed at seeking a simpler existence called "Lying Flat," which Chinese students adopted to resist societal expectations. I could relate with these students by drawing from my own experiences growing up in a Middle Eastern household where there was constant pressure to perform better than those from close-knit families. Realizing how many people are influenced by societal demands to fit in, I began to wonder what normality means in today's world. Through exploring the pressure to conform and embarking on a journey of self-discovery, I have come to believe that one can only lead a fulfilling and meaningful life by embracing one’s true self and pursuing one’s unique passions.
During my childhood, I constantly sought to fit in with the popular kids at school. I copied their speaking style and clothing choices, and even developed a liking for their taste of music. Although many of these kids played a variety of sports, I felt limited to only playing soccer because of social expectations. I did not consider taking part in other sports because I was neither tall nor muscular. However, one day in my physical education class, soccer balls had to be replaced, and we had to play basketball instead. As we played in teams, I gradually realized how basketball was similar to soccer in strategy and speed. I also discovered that it can be played by anyone and is not related to height. In fact, being tall may hinder performance, as was the case when I outperformed my peers despite lacking a height advantage. This experience broadened my perspective to explore hobbies that may not have seemed fitting for someone with my physical attributes or talents. The more I explored these different interests, the more I realized that I did not have to conform to what society expected of me. It was similar to advancing to a higher level in a game where the system no longer offers assistance, and you are free to learn and explore. However, it is much more challenging as you will have to rely on your skills and abilities to progress.
The weight of societal expectations can make it tough to pursue one’s passions. A prime example is my own experience with singing. Despite facing rejection and disapproval from family, friends, and adults who deemed singing a time-wasting pursuit, I was determined to leave my mark on the industry. Even if it was only a scratch, singing inspired me to create and experiment in a way that nothing had before. However, the pressures of my environment began to weigh on me. The constant chatter and criticism from my peers started to interfere with my academic work, and I found myself doubting my abilities. I decided to take time off until the end of the semester to concentrate on my studies and come back to my passion with a specific focus and renewed drive. When summer did arrive, I returned to my work feeling free from judgment. Although my initial songs were quite awful, I persisted and gradually improved. This hard work and dedication paid off, as I released numerous songs that were greatly enhanced. The last of these songs attracted a lot of interest and interaction, which made me feel accomplished and proud. Not only did it free me from the burden of social standards, but it also showed me my true capabilities and helped me become more authentic to myself.
These traits extended to other areas of my life and provided me with the assurance and perseverance to face challenges. When a tough project came my way in college, I put this mindset into practice, repeatedly telling myself that with hard work and dedication, I can overcome any obstacle. With this approach, I am confident that I can overcome any challenge that arises, much like creating a song or pulling off a new skateboarding trick. As a result of this increased awareness of my abilities, I feel more at ease taking risks and exploring new things. When I think back on it, I realize how fortunate I was to be able to follow my passions instead of trying to fit into society’s norms. The skills I learned throughout this time will serve as an asset in my future career and personal life.
Another way to make life more fulfilling is by discovering yourself. We often find ourselves following in the footsteps of others, even if it's not what we truly desire. For instance, a young person may choose a particular career because it pays well, or someone may have to present themselves in a certain way on social media in order to fit in. This tendency stems from our innate human desire for safety and security. However, this approach is detrimental, as one sacrifices their authenticity and individuality, essential components of personal fulfilment and happiness. We may believe that conforming to social norms provides us with safety and acceptance, but it also deprives us of the joy that comes from pursuing our passions. In the long term, we would regret the opportunities we missed out on and the unexplored potential that could have been put to great use. While breaking away from social norms may seem daunting, embarking on a journey of self-discovery can be a simple yet powerful way to start. One way to begin this path is to spend more time alone. Despite the common belief that this method can be isolating or lonely, we should view it as an opportunity to connect with ourselves. Unfortunately, many people are unable to experience it, as they only feel happy and safe when they are with others. This dependence prevents them from discovering themselves. As a result, by detaching ourselves from others and spending time in introspection, we can gain a deeper understanding of who we are and what we truly desire. This process of self-discovery can lead to a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life as we become more aware of our own unique passions and strengths.
One way I spent this time alone was by going to the beach on a cold day, lighting a small fire, and resting with some music and snacks. I enjoyed the scenery and the breeze as I walked along the beach. We can chat to ourselves in these moments and reflect on prior experiences, possibly ones that did not appeal to us or ones we hope to complete more efficiently. We can experience peace and tranquillity; it is wonderful to take a brief break from the chaos of the outside world.. On another day I spent alone, I decided to learn how to skateboard. I typically learn skills quickly, and this time was no different. I headed to an empty parking lot nearby and learned how to ride. I was able to focus on the task at hand without being concerned about interruptions which helped me examine where my technique was failing and what I needed to do to balance myself on the skateboard. I found that when I was alone, I learnt quickly and effectively. Additionally, this experience taught me that spending time alone can be a time for personal growth because it helps us determine the best ways to learn and develop.
When it comes to leading a fulfilling life, self-discovery is vital. Many of us follow paths chosen by others, which can leave us feeling disconnected. Spending time alone can help us reconnect and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves as it provides an opportunity for reflection, discovering passions, and learning new skills. Additionally, it encourages personal development because it helps us learn to value our independence and enjoy our own companionship.
The key to a meaningful life is to embrace our true self and pursue our passions. Through exploring the pressure to conform and the journey of self-discovery, I have found that true happiness comes from within, not from societal expectations. I encourage everyone to spend time discovering their own passions fearlessly, as it is the surest way to find happiness and fulfillment.