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Hello Dr. Saltzman,

I spend most of my life dedicated to political activism and volunteer work which comes from a deep seated concern for the state of humanity. Lately I am realizing that I am intensely unhappy and unsatisfied with my life, because I cannot pursue what I love, which is graphic design. I don't find time to pursue any meaningful relationships outside of a few people I work with.

My question is:

Is it wrong to give up doing something which is supremely good but makes you unhappy, for something which is productive yet not an amazing sacrifice, if it makes you really happy.

I am also somewhat religious, and I find it difficult to reconcile the idea that God wants us to be happy with the idea that we should serve him.


Age 24

Washington DC

Hello, Randy--

Your question begins with the words, "Is it wrong. . . ," which is the clue that I am being asked to offer a moral judgment. As I read it, your letter seems to be asking for my opinion on the ethical dilemma involved in choosing between a life of service in which the source of satisfaction is mainly a feeling of having done "good" for the world regardless of whether or not one really enjoyed doing the work itself, or a different kind of life--one based more on spending your time in ways that make you happy even if those ways provide no great contribution to "humanity."

Although I am interested in ethical choices--and particularly interested in how human beings can find meaning in life beyond the usual absurdities about "God," salvation, the afterlife, heaven, and hell--you should understand that neither my psychology training nor any other special experience has prepared me to be an authority on what is right and what is wrong. In fact, I know of no such authority on right or wrong--no one who can make a list reliably distinguishing all permissible actions from all impermissible ones, or all "good" actions from all "bad" ones--which is one of the reasons why, as I see it, each of us must sooner or later stop relying on authorities, and learn to trust our deepest, truest inclinations in matters of meaning and ethics.

To put this another way, suppose I would now tell you that in my view to live without pursuing your own happiness and sense of joy is to be only half alive regardless of any "good" you may accomplish. How would that help you? After all, you could just as easily find someone else who would say the opposite, who would say that to live by following your own bliss, as mythologist Joseph Campbell famously recommended, is simply selfish, and that "God" requires us to serve not our own interests, but "His." So how would you choose between those two very different kinds of advice? You would choose, I imagine, by trying to understand the implications of both points of view, and then looking within yourself to see which point of view made more sense to you. Or, you might consider the credentials of each person and decide to trust the one who seems better educated or who has a higher position in the social hierarchy. Therefore, whatever moral or ethical authority another person has in your world, in your experience, really results from your decision, your choice--conscious or unconscious--to trust the point of view of that person. In other words, the moral authority you seek does not belong to that person, but is really your own moral authority--your own ability to distinguish meanings and to care about differences--projected onto that person. In the end, it all comes down to you.

I know that some of my readers will disagree with this, and would say that there is an unambiguous moral or ethical authority called "God," who has expressed the moral rules in holy scripture. In fact, Randy, you seem to want to cover that base yourself by saying that you are "somewhat religious." But whence these scriptures get their authority? Clearly from whoever reads them and decides to treat what is written as the indisputable "word of God," instead of reading it in one of the many other ways available to those with open, skeptical minds. One person will claim that the Christian Bible constitutes an instruction book, dictated by "God," for moral action designed to keep its readers from burning forever in Hell. Someone else might say, for example, that the New Testament is nonsense, concocted, much of it, many years, even centuries, after Jesus died, and that the real word of "God" is the Qu'ran as revealed by the "Prophet." Don't you see? It will always be the individual person who sooner or later has to choose what to believe, what to care about, and where to use ones limited energies in life. Another person cannot decide this for you, no matterhow authoritative, how learned, how wise he or she might seem.

As I see it, people who want "God" or the Bible, or the pastor, or the imam, (or the therapist for that matter), to tell them what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what to do and what not to do, are like children who demand that mommy and daddy explain the world to them and keep them safe from it as well. When will you grow up and begin to explain things for yourself? Or will you always be a child waiting for another human being--presumably one more adult than you--to tell you that your way of living is good or bad, right or wrong, worthy or unworthy?

If you understand this, Randy, please simply look into your own heart and do whatever you must to find dignity, meaning, and joy in this brief life you enjoy.

Be well.

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