Shahid Batalvi Speaks

with apology to Black Elk for he speaks first

Who are you indebted to ?

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What is your debt to human society ?
Especially if you have been born by the accident of birth to privilege and opportunity.
What is your obligation to human society ?
I have my own opinion but came across an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal the other day. It came fairly close to my understanding of how to reconcile with your purpose in life and your obligation to human society.
My advice to Isaac would be same that was given to me by my father at the same stage in my life.
"Don’t let your studies hinder your education". 
"Seek your purpose in life and your obligation to human society. I am here to help you on your way".
The concept is very similar to what Bill Gates Sr. is trying to project in his book "Showing Up for Life".
You are an active participant in humanity’s struggle for its collective salvation.
Much Has Been Given Isaac. Now What?

ISAAC: My family is relatively well off. My parents make more than enough money to provide us kids with food, clothes and a house, to pay for things like family vacations and private-college tuitions. Most of my peers are in the same boat, with parents who have worked hard for their children to have opportunities.

Yet, I often wonder whether we appreciate what we have as much as we should. I have seen people my age throw away their good fortune by not taking advantage of their education, by becoming addicted to drugs, or by simply not giving their parents any respect for putting them in such a good position.

Like many in our neighborhood, my parents worked their way up the socioeconomic ladder. My dad grew up in a missionary family without lots of money, got a job as a translator for The Wall Street Journal after college and then worked his way up to being a bureau chief. Now that I’m reaping the benefits, the question keeps coming up in my head: How should I deal with this good fortune?

Late one Saturday night a couple weeks ago, a friend and I were sitting around his dining-room table drinking coffee and talking. His parents, too, had come from less-fortunate families and had worked hard to get to the point where they were able to give their kids great opportunities. We decided that there were two basic ways to approach this issue from the children’s point of view.

The first way to look at it is that we kids have an obligation to take full advantage of the opportunities given to us because of our parents’ hard work. This would mean immersing ourselves in the education provided, going on to get a good job and living life in a way our parents find acceptable. This choice seems like the natural answer, but it also seems to mean that privileged children have to live indebted to our parents, always with something to pay them back for. In other words, we’ll always live our lives according to their standards. That doesn’t feel quite right.

The second approach would be to say we kids have the right to basically ignore our parents’ expectations. It wasn’t our choice to be born. If we follow this argument, we could claim full moral freedom to go in any direction in our lives without feeling like we had to make decisions that our parents would be happy with. There would be no shackles and no indebtedness. This approach feels even further from the truth.

As the time is nearing when I’ll go to college and begin to take almost complete control of my life, this issue is likely to become more important, and confusing, than ever. The feeling that my success in life could serve as a payback to my parents makes me uncomfortable with the high standards it implies.

So how do you see it, Dad: Do I have a debt to repay you?

STEVE: Yes, Isaac, you do have a debt to repay. But it isn’t to me, primarily. And it doesn’t necessarily put you in the straitjacket you seem to fear.

Your debt, like my debt and your mother’s, is to the generations before us who passed blessings down to us. And it’s to the countless others in the world today who are not as blessed.

It is to your grandparents, who dedicated their lives to making others’ lives better while instilling a broad worldview in us. It is to your great-grandparents on Iowa and Texas farms who, despite grade-school educations and little money, managed to send their children to college so they could have a better life. It is to your great-grandparents in Illinois and Indiana, who helped build and fund those colleges so that young Mennonites like my parents could have opportunities that were unthinkable before.

The debt goes back to the Joders and Kreiders who risked their lives sailing from the Old Country to escape religious persecution in the 1700s. You are here, well appointed for life’s vast opportunities, because others before us took mind-boggling risks and leaps of faith.

Your debt goes beyond family. Having been born American, you are more fortunate than 95% of the people of this world. Because of that accident of birth, you have been given the rare gift of privilege and opportunity; your debt to the world is to be a good steward of that gift.

So, yes, you do have a debt. But your options in repaying that debt are broad.

Clearly, I do have some concrete expectations. You’ll be attending a strong liberal-arts school with rich opportunities. If we’re paying more than $100,000 in your college bills, I expect you to max out on the opportunities you have there — to gorge on the best professors’ classes, to immerse yourself in the rich music scene, to engage with intellectually challenging classmates, to explore the international-studies and service opportunities.

But I don’t want you to go through life haunted by the specter of parental expectation or by the pressure to strive for a conventional measure of "success."

A friend of mine talks bitterly of how his affluent parents remind him regularly that he failed to meet their expectations — failed to repay his debt to them — by becoming a journalist rather than a doctor or lawyer. I don’t want you feeling you have a tab to repay me.

So how should you repay that debt? Maybe it’s by achieving greatness in the eyes of masses or by quietly reducing inequity in the world. Maybe it’s simply by being happy and making those around you happy.

"For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required," reads the biblical passage I heard often growing up. Much has been given you; now, you’re the one who must decide how to repay that debt.

Steve Yoder is chief of The Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau. His son, Isaac, is 18 years old and a senior in high school.


Written by Shahid Batalvi

June 2, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Analysis

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