Recent Disney animated feature films have been exceptional in addressing issues relevant to today’s society. Frozen, Brave, and Moana have pioneered strong female leads without the need for a prince charming to save the day. Zootopia and Inside Out have highlighted other pervasive societal problems, such as racial and mental health issues, respectively. Understandably, the meaningful themes and quality artisanship of these movies have garnered much critical praise and fan favorites among both adults and children. I find these films extremely endearing and I am pleased to see Disney, which plays a role in influencing our childhoods and beyond, grow with the times. However, I know that these powerful messages are not exclusive to the recent decade.
The Lion King was released in 1994 and, like many other Disney movies, it carries a teachable message. What sets it apart is a theme often underrepresented on the silver screen: one of purpose and responsibility. Young Simba witnesses (spoiler alert! although I can hardly imagine one is necessary) the death of his father and, traumatized, turns to the easiest path before him and runs away. Upon meeting Timon and Pumba, Simba settled into a life of bliss (i.e. hakuna matata) while those he left behind suffered from his neglect of responsibility. Eventually, duty comes to find him and, realizing his purpose in life, Simba returns to lead his pride and fulfills the responsibilities he was born with.
Simba’s story has taught us the importance of overcoming the whims of our wants and devoting to our duty and purpose. And while his life was easily dictated by his birth, we don’t all have to be born as heirs to the throne to recognize our purposes in life. Like many fellow Millennials, I am struggling to figure out what I want to do. Since we spend most of our lives working our careers, our life path can essentially equates to which career path we want to take. Many people try to answer this by considering what “passion” they would like to pursue. “Do what you love” and “find your calling” are some of the terms frequently resonated in Millennial self-help articles, alongside inspirational anecdotes about how others discovered their passions through epiphanies and subsequently worked through hardships to achieve satisfying, successful careers. If you are passionate about something, live your life by it. And since our careers define our lives, that usually means finding a way to make a career out of our passions.
In fact, the American work culture almost necessitates you to be passionate about your job. Job postings, ranging from retail positions to CFOs, are always screening for “passionate” people (think: “why do you want to work here?”). Employers want to hire people who allegedly love their jobs, because that means less employee complaints to deal with. Additionally, being a happy employee makes your bosses feel better about themselves, since they aren’t burdened with your sulkiness. But isn’t it a bit improbable to ask someone applying for a cashier job at the local grocery store “why do you want to work here?” and expecting an answer other than “I need a job”? In Japan, for instance, the working culture understand that even if employees are not in love with their jobs, it exists because there is a need and it is their duty to fulfill that need. All jobs, from the garbage pickup man to the state governor, are necessary cogs in our society and should be regarded with respect. (For more on the topic, check out this article.)
Passion is certainly necessary in life. The surge of passion gives us the confidence and drive to dive in. Passionate love feels good. But passion is fleeting, fluctuating and fades. Passion brings joy, but also opens the door for pain, just as loving someone makes you vulnerable to being hurt. In fact, the term “passion” originates from the Latin stem “passio”, which refers specifically to Christ’s sufferings on the cross, and is used to denote suffering and submission. Submitting yourself to your passions means suffering under its influence, where control is not necessary in your own rational mind. Passion may drive you to pursue your wants, but it may not lead to a fulfilling life.
Rather than defining our paths with passion, a better approach is to define it with purpose. While passion is volatile and selfish, purpose is decisive and altruistic. Passion drives you to pursue your personal desires. Purpose gives you a more meaningful place in society. Your path may fade once you realize that you no longer have the passion to fuel your motivation, but the burden of responsibility will hold you accountable to your goals. A single mother of three working two jobs can hardly be “passionate” about her work, day in and day out, but her life has purpose if she decides it is her duty to provide for her kids. This gives her life meaning. While she may not have changed the world, she will have changed the world for her kids, who, with the life and opportunities she has given them, may go on to better the world for others. Finding your purpose does not involve stumbling upon an epiphany and “finding yourself”. Rather, it is a strategic decision to apply your skills and abilities where they would be most effective.
Hollywood thrives on the romanticized stories of passion, whether romantic or otherwise, because they elicit the greatest response of pathos from the audience. Understandably, the public values such stories as an escape from their day-to-day duties, but doing so overlooks the value of responsibility. I’d like to see more movies like The Lion King, where responsibility is celebrated. Ideally, an equal mixture of passion and purpose helps us extract the benefits of both while being aware of the downsides of each. Passion tells us to dream big and to try even when situations seem improbable. Purpose drives us the rest of the way by holding us accountable to our decision. Don’t try to discover what you want to do; decide on what you need to do. Essentially, what is it that you can do for the world with the life you are given? What are you going to contribute your talents and time to? Where do you fit as part of the great cogs of humanity? What is your purpose?