Minus a few organizational edits, this post serves as a stream-of-consciousness ride into some of my deepest and hard to articulate thoughts. Enjoy!
I love to complain about my busy schedule and work load; a packed Google Calendar and an insurmountable checklist are indicators of importance for me in a world that is constantly measuring my worth. Complaining about commitments and deadlines serve as a reassurance or a justification that I do deserve to be in my job or to pursue my career aspirations. This formative period of life demands the institution of independence and identity, and the stakes have never been higher. Salaries — and transitively, productivity — determine how quickly my student loans are paid down, my ability to be social on the weekends, and people’s general perception of my maturity and potential as a newly minted adult.
Yet, even as I follow the well-worn path of gaining work experience and applying to law school, I can’t shake this empty feeling — a knot in my stomach. It creeps around the cubicles during a slow afternoon at work. Instead of enjoying a breath of relief from seemingly infinite emails, phone calls, and assignments, it catches me by surprise, leaving me dejected and suspicious of my inherent value. Why do I feel this way? Did JVC just not prepare me well for the “real” world? A seemingly normal and logical shift to money took place after Disorientation. It was time to enter the market — start a career, pay off student debt, enter or consider graduate school. Essentially, it was time for me to sell my time and services. I reckoned that the shift would be hard and radical, and the number of differences between JVC and my life as an FJV have been piling up ever since.
However, I’ve come to realize, and only in bits and pieces this past year, that the striking contrast between being a JV and a capitalist actor goes beyond the factor of money. It digs deeper. It manifests in the relation of myself to the rest of the world — a cataclysmic shift from freely and generously giving my time to speculating and assessing the monetary estimate of my productivity. And this changes me every day. A delay on the train, a seemingly menial task, a polite conversation asking too many questions; they all suddenly do not fit into my schedule. Seldom would I ever rank such a situation or task during JVC as not worth my time, and now I find myself repeating this mantra daily. When did my inherent value change? When did I become so damn important?
Not only is this helium-filled ego a facade, it has been contingent upon my continued and unrelenting production. As soon as my checklist shrinks, so too does my value. Minus the privilege of a loving family, society had never once before granted me value simply based on my presence. Grades, paychecks, and social status were all I had ever known, and I pursued them aggressively. Compare this to JVC. We all learned about mixed social institutions during Reorientation. If we had not yet consciously encountered the intimidating futility of our efforts, this feeling of being helpless against social machines and ever influential actors was not far away. JVC never expected us to upend the institutions, to revolutionize the communities, or to eradicate the injustices. Rather, the moments of solidarity with clients, co-workers, and community members were the truly radical experiences for me in so many ways. JVC was dynamic because those moments of consolation with others ingrained in me a Divine notion that we are inherently valuable. Our mere existence is a gift from God.
This is most exemplified by my last Friday at my placement, a homeless shelter and substance use recovery center for men in Houston. I was in the senior slide of the year and only had a few cleaning items left in my agenda. I reminisced about the highs and lows of the year as I put the final touches on the training binder for the new JV when, without warning, one of my favorite clients burst into my office, tears streaming down his face. He struggled to stand up straight, and his slurred words sent me immediate red flags. I scooped him into my arms and screamed for my colleague to call 911 to report the overdose. The client put his arm around my shoulder, and we shuffled to his bunk beds to wait for the EMTs. I begged him to allow the first responders to take him to the hospital downtown, and I held his hand as they loaded him into the ambulance, where he was stabilized over the weekend.
Over a year later, I can’t think about that day without tears coming to my eyes. This tragic, yet powerful, experience stands in bright contrast to my life in the working world. The raw humility of that moment rested in my sheer sense of helplessness. I did not feel like a problem solver or a savior that day — quite the opposite. I was simply being a pair of hands. Anyone could have been in my position and done the same thing; I was in no way uniquely qualified for that scenario. In retrospect, it was truly a privilege that God allowed me to be there for my client at that time. So many of those in recovery gravitate towards isolation when they relapse and suffer alone. I have been so heart-broken and grateful that such a responsibility had been given to me to hold my client’s hand and comfort him, to be present for him, during his time in need.
Now, this post is not a rebuke of capitalism; I have no idea if a better system exists. I can only wonder, as I find myself doing exponentially more each day, that maybe individuals don’t have to sell themselves to the highest bidder to create purpose, that maybe self-worth is inherent to our beingness rather than our production. That would be cool, and despite the odds and conventional wisdom of our times, I increasingly believe it to be true.