Sunday, April 22, 2012

What I "Give Up"

People talk about doing something like me in terms of "giving up" a year of their lives. This makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to sound like a pretentious jerk, but honestly, the idea that making less money for a year and doing social service work means that you are giving up your life is just not true. You may be giving up certain aspects of your life, yes, and you may have seen them as essential before (and possibly after) the year or time of service, but let's be honest: no matter what you do, your giving up something. If you choose to work your way up the ladder of a huge cooperation, you may be giving up experiences outside of work for a few years, or if you travel to Europe for the summer your giving up time with your friends and family. Nothing is done without using something else. And to say "I gave up years of my life in honor of something/someone else" is basically saying could have been doing something bigger or better but instead you decided to be more lowly, which sounds kind of pretentious to me.

You made a choice we all make constantly. I "gave up" my last two years at Two Harbors High School to study writing at Perpich. It was the best decision I ever made. Last night I "gave up" a few hours of watching TV and relaxing to go to yoga class and felt great about it.

So what bothers me about people saying "I gave up a year of my life to do service in Americorps" or "I gave up two years for Teach for America" is that I feel like they are taking a moral high ground because of it. There is typically a tone of, "Look at this awesome thing I did while you were off making your career or going to grad school or raising a family." Maybe I'm bringing that to the situation, but I do think my judgement comes from somewhere real. And people think better of you for having done a year of service or participated in the Peace Corps or dropped everything to help disaster victims.

The thing is, these "service" jobs are AMAZING and AWESOME things to do, but they don't make us better than anyone else who for whatever reason didn't go do them. And to say you "gave up" can make it seem like it was not an enriching experience to give this thing up. But honestly, usually it is a very enriching thing to learn that you can live happily and healthily with a much more limited amount of money or in a community with different values and economic levels than where you grew up.

I also think that the things people do when when or if they choose not to go into service or travel or volunteerism are very valuable and enriching. I have friends who got married right out of high school and have lives that are deep, enriching and have so many different aspects than mine. I don't like looking at this as something we can judge anything but our own lives off of. It doesn't make me better than anyone else to have spent a year working with the homeless. It may make me a better person than I was, but not better than anyone around me. At least it's not my place to judge or get moral high ground around anyone else or their journey. (Including of course this whole post where I shouldn't be judging people for the pride they should rightfully take in their work with at-risk or needy communities. Ah! What a catch-22!)

And of course I'm doing all of this and I'm proud of what I've chosen to do this year. I am serving no one, even if I use this language from time to time. I take what is donated and facilitate it getting to individuals who need it, as my job description says. I don't know if I've come to any answers for the "big" questions I ask myself. I have not found better ways to cope with seeing poverty and suffering around me than I had at the beginning of the year. But I am doing good things and enriching my life. By challenging myself in many different ways this year, I am becoming a better person. But who knows what kind of a person I would be if I chose some different kinds of challenges instead of these.

Did this make any sense? I'm not sure even I can follow myself here...


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  2. THANK YOU. I agree with all of this--I hate the phrase "gave up a year to do...x,y,z." Everything we do in life is a missed opportunity for something else. You never "get it all" at once! I think it cheapens the importance of our choices to say otherwise...