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posted: 7/20/2014 1:01 AM

Winning the rat race not all it's cracked up to be

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Slowly but surely, those of us in the "T-shirt, Levis and sneakers" generation have undergone a metamorphosis. The evidence is all around us.

I met an old friend -- now an auditor for a major insurance corporation -- down in the Loop the other day. Arriving early, I sat in the restaurant in my psychotherapist uniform: tan slacks, brown corduroy sport coat, knit tie. Absorbed in a book, I didn't notice my friend until he approached the table. Short hair, three-piece gray suit, wire-rim glasses -- he looked to a "T" the part of the no-nonsense CPA.

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We both broke down laughing. "Good Lord," I said, chuckling, "we're respectable!"

We talked about our mutual frustrations with corporate life. And we shared our struggles to balance the pressures to succeed against more important beliefs and values. Finally, Ren summed it all up.

"You know, Ken, even when you've won the rat race, you're still a rat."

The '80s hit movie "The Big Chill" makes much the same point. A group of close friends from the "Sixties Generation," reunited at a funeral, are confronted with the compromises they all have made in the values they expressed as college students. The question is raised, but only partially answered: Have they actually lost in winning?

Two forces are at work here. First, as we move through adulthood, we realize the black-and-white world we saw as adolescents and young adults doesn't exist.

In fact, most of the world is colored in shades of gray. Right and wrong are not neat, clear-cut choices but artificial distinctions that, more often than not, fade away with a closer look.

Many of us, confronted with the ambiguity of today's issues, choose to do nothing rather than get involved in something we can't totally believe in. It's hard to feel committed to a "maybe" cause.

A second force is the seductiveness of our possession-, power- and prestige-oriented society. The young adult culture of the '60s rejected these standards (or, at least, we thought we did). We found strength in our numbers and the attention paid to us.

Once we became part of the "real" world, however, we often found ourselves to be just small cogs in a big machine. We were all too easily seduced by the success syndrome that powered this machine and that infected those around us.

To be honest, though, the temptation to see life as simply a quest for more -- more possessions, more power, more prestige -- always has been within us. And it has deep roots.

Ultimately, each of us desires, often desperately, to feel loved, to feel competent, to feel respected and to feel secure. The belief that these can be found in accumulating money or authority over others is as old as humankind.

It always feels good to be able to end a column with a neat, pat and clever answer to a question I've raised. But this is an awfully big question, and I'm afraid there aren't any perfectly clear answers.

There are some hints, though. As my friend and I ended our time together, we gave each other a hug. We got some strange looks, but that's part of our friendship. We care deeply for each other.

At the conclusion of "The Big Chill," with tears and laughter, the friends are able to reaffirm their love for each other. This need to relate in love is a value also affirmed by many of the world's religions. And it is acknowledged by most non‑religious people as well.

What that value looks like lived out pragmatically in this world is often no more obvious to me than it is to anybody else. But, in my work with individuals, couples and families, I've seen that time and time again we are confronted with the need to relate in love.

Possessions, power, prestige -- that's winning the rat race. But is it really winning? Maybe we rats need to stop running and look around. There are people there. Perhaps with each other we can find the love, the respect and the security the race is really all about.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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