Once upon a time, there was a family who lived nowhere in particular, but for now, we’ll say they lived smack in the middle of the civilized world. This family was made up of a Father, a Mother, and an adopted child. This child’s name was Wun. Wun would live the majority of his life with no knowledge of his adoption, but on the day that he would find out, a small crack in the foundation of the
civilized world would begin to form. But in order to understand what this crack meant, we must start at the beginning of Wun’s life. When he was very young, his Father sat him down and taught him one of the most meaningful lessons of his life.
“Son, all that matters in this life is that you make as much money as possible. I know that sometimes it will be difficult, but as long as you make lots of money, someday you will be happy. Someday you may even be able to do something great with your money.”
His mind was so untouched by the world, at his tender age, that although this perplexed him, he silently agreed. The thought that he could one day use his money for great things made him smile. A few days later his Mother asked to have a talk with him as well. She sat him down, and told him another one of the most meaningful lessons of his life.
“My dear, I want you to know something. This will help guide you through your life and will steer you toward great happiness. Do you want to know what it is?”
“Of course! You’re my Mother. I always want to listen to you when you speak,” Wun replied.
“All that matters in this life is your visual beauty. Your goal in life should be to be as beautiful as possible at all times,” she said with a hint of whimsical pride.
“Okay Mother. But how do I know who is beautiful and who is not?”
“Keep your eyes open. Everywhere you go in life there are signs to point the way.”
And so it began. Wun wandered his way through life, listening to the advice of those around him about how to make as much money as possible. He asked his teachers in school for help and they gave him textbooks. He asked his peers and they told him to get an advanced degree. He watched those who were successful before him and learned that one must work very very hard to be successful. Using everything he had learned, upon graduation of college, he found himself a job that allowed him to work very very hard.
But after a few years at his job, he started to realize that something was missing, without being sure of what it was. He remembered back to his childhood when his Mother told him that his goal should be to be as beautiful as possible, and he decided that must be what was missing. He wasn’t beautiful enough. Luckily, in pursuit of his goal to make as much money as possible, he had accumulated some wealth. So he decided to start spending it on his beauty, and luckily, there were signs everywhere helping to point the way. First they showed him he should get expensive haircuts twice a month, then encouraged him to buy the most expensive watch he could find. Then he saw one that suggested he buy a bright red sports car to match his watch. Unfortunately, his single bedroom apartment no longer fit with his new car and appearance so he decided to buy a condo in a wealthy area. He made new friends, who were more beautiful than him, and they made him feel inferior. So he paid for an expensive physical trainer and gym membership.
Years went by and he realized that he was still missing something. Everyone around him seemed to have someone they loved, and he had not found someone yet. So he decided to work harder to make more money.
Then, after he had been working for 30 years, he decided that it was time to speak with a financial adviser to see if he could do something great with all the money he had saved, just like his Father had always told him. The adviser disappointed him by saying that he simply didn’t have enough money to do anything significant. It would take far more than he had. Upon realizing how little money he had saved, and keeping everything his parents taught him in mind, he asked himself a question that would crack the foundation of his reality. How is it possible to make a lot of money AND to stay beautiful? He needed money to pay for all the things that made him valuable in the eyes of others, his expensive clothes, home, car, jewelry, appearance, and yet, he also needed money to do something great. After thinking about this for some time to no end, a much scarier question entered his mind. Why would his parents teach him two conflicting values to set him up for failure like that?
Then, on a rainy Sunday morning, he found the courage to confront them. Without knocking, he walked through the arched double doors in front of his parents’ home and made his way to the backyard where they spent most of their leisure time. Along the way he passed framed newspapers of major headlines from the past 30 years and massive portraits of his Mother, each with their own ceiling mounted light. They both sat under their own separate massive umbrellas, although they clearly should have been sharing one. His Father was reading the next week’s newspaper, chuckling to himself, while his Mother admired herself in a vanity mirror aside her lounge chair. Upon noticing Wun’s presence, they both stopped what they were doing, and, without even the slightest sense of surprise, greeted him. He told them he had something serious to talk about. He sat down in a stool opposite them and asked them why they had set him up for failure so early in his life.
Their answer changed him forever.
“You see, things are not what they seem my child,” his Mother said, caressing his arm, and looking impossibly beautiful for her age.
“She’s right. We have something we should tell you,” his Father said, squeezing his shoulder with the assurance of a man with an infinitly thick wallet. “We are not really your parents. We adopted you at the very beginning of your life, and since we knew you wouldn’t remember it, we decided not to tell you.”
“What…what do you mean you’re not my parents?!? Who are you then?” his voice cracked with fear and disbelief.
“I am the Government,” the man said.
“And I am the Media,” the woman followed with strikingly similar tone.
“You see, as the Government, it has always been my job to govern the people and to govern is to maintain order. The best way to do that is to unite everyone with a common pursuit. A life of pursuit is a life of purpose.”
“And what’s that?” Wun replied.
“Well, you already know the answer to that question. I’ve been teaching you that since the day you were born.”
Father Government smirked empathetically.
“To make as much money as possible!? But I’ve been working for money my entire life and I still don’t have enough to do something great!”
“Well, that’s because you spent most of it,”
Mother Media chimed in, “And that’s where I come in. You see, with lots of money comes lots of power, and people with power threaten the stability of the system your Father and I created. So, in order to keep people from getting too much money, and power, it’s my job to convince them to spend most of their money on things that won’t threaten our system.”
“So you’re saying that from the day I was born, you have KNOWINGLY been setting me up for failure?!?” Wun roared, outraged. “How could you do this to me? I’ve suffered so many days, feeling like I’m a worthless, ugly, poor human being who doesn’t deserve anyone else. I never found true love because I never thought I was good enough for anyone. I never learned to love myself because, compared to the people I saw on television, I was always so ugly and stupid. I never explored the world because I thought I had to save money to make as much as possible. I was never happy… because…” he began to choke up, “because you never… wanted me to be…”
Father Government paused for a moment, “You know Son, we really do love you. It’s just that, the system would fall apart if we didn’t teach you those things. We had no other choice.”
“No other choice!? What’s so wrong with a person who thinks for themselves and lives a life of their own design? What’s so wrong with being happy!?” tears were streaming down his face. “I gave up all my childhood dreams to follow your advice. I followed those before me because YOU taught me that it would lead to success and happiness!”
“People don’t know how to be happy on their own, dear. They need us to provide the structure,”
Mother Media said coldly. “Why do you think I’ve been showing you all those movies and sitcoms all these years? Those characters seem pretty happy, right?”
“And why do you think, all those years ago, I made sure they wrote ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in the Constitution?”
Father Government followed, mimicking Mother Media’s sensitive tone.
A heavy silence fell upon them. So heavy that it seemed to dampen the air and Wun began to choke. Then, all at once, he stood up with a strength he had never felt before in entire his life. A stir of emotions coursed through his veins as he began to walk away, but, after a few steps, he turned to face the two who had raised him since birth.
“You know, I almost walked out of here without saying anything because I realize how useless it would be, since you aren’t my parents, to tell you what I think. But I feel like I have a responsibility to speak… if not for myself then for all those who never have.
I understand that you have a complex problem before you… organizing large amounts of individual minds, maintaining order, and progressing forward. And admittedly, you have done that. But at what price? There are billions of people out there just like me… who live a life of disappointment and despair, simply because of the values that you two have been teaching us for our entire lives. But without us, you have nothing. Don’t you think that you should give us the chance to find happiness on our own? We don’t need you two to tell us how to live our lives from the day we are born. We already have all the guidance we need innately within us. And frankly, you two are just distractions. Goodbye.” Wun curtly turned and walked back through the house, through the arched double doors, and never looked back.
THE TAKEAWAY: The idea for this story presented itself to me during one of my classes, in which my students unanimously recited, in order, the five most important things Korean’s look for in a marriage partner. They were one: face, two: body, three: money, four: house and five: personality. This particular class had been the third class that day to recite these answers in precisely the same order. After I walked out of the classroom and into my office, I sat down to start writing this story, one I think that we all can relate to, regardless of what country we were raised in. Its purpose was not to answer, but rather, to raise a question. What if we all didn’t live a life defined by the powers that be? Could we all live a life of our own design? I truly believe, someday, we will find the answer to these questions. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.