November 2013 Archives

A note about feeling valuable

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For the last few months, I've been having a crisis of self-confidence. I've been worrying that I've lost my politics, that I'm no longer sure exactly what I care about, and what matters to me.

If I were to write a letter to myself, reminding me of my values and politics, what would I highlight? Regardless of the relevance of those values and politics to my research, what do I care about? What are the features of my belief system that I think are totally invaluable and necessary?

There's a laundry list of items that I think matter. Equality. Agency. Choice. Self-determination. Caring for others and for the world around us.

Maybe most, I care about equality. It matters to me that everyone should have the ability to live their life without undue hardship. It drives me crazy that we live in a world in which some are wealthy beyond their needs and others are stretched beyond their means. It bothers me that the wealthy and privileged are consistently more able to live comfortably and achieve their goals than are the poor and unprivileged. In a sense, equality ties into agency here. I want everyone to have the opportunity to make real, significant decisions for themselves, and to feel that they have choice in their own lives. It doesn't seem like that's the prevailing condition for most people.

In fact, it may be hopelessness and disempowerment that bother me more than anything else. It bothers me that many people go through their lives doing the things that they feel are required of them, living as if they're constantly running on a treadmill of gradually but constantly increasing speed. There's an inequality issue here. For people of means, and for people with the empowered mindset that comes of privilege, there's very little question that life comes with choice. I see myself as an example of this. I have never doubted that I have a choice about what to do with my life. I have never had any doubt about my ability to earn a living wage. Though I may have debt, I have no doubt that I will be able to pay it back in short order. My choices are not crippling. They're adventures. I'm surrounded by people in the same position. Which makes it all the more difficult to realize that this is not the case for most people.

Lack of choice, lack of power, lack of flexibility: All of these are things I see increasingly in today's students, but cannot see in myself or my own peers. When I did my undergraduate degree, I had the luxury of studying design, getting a BFA. I didn't do it simply because I thought it would get me a job. The prospect of employability was a bonus. I did it because I was interested in it, because I cared about it. I chose my degree because I liked and was passionate about the subject. I don't see that passion in many students entering university now. So many of them seem to approach university as a value proposition. They're concerned about their employability, and about getting a good return on their educational investment. University is not optional now. The degree is a barrier to entry. It's yet another thing that young adults need to do in order to enter the world. My privilege came in the form of making a choice based on interest. My privilege came in the form of my parents supporting me. There's something both bourgeois and exceptionally WASPy about the system in my family: You get one degree for free, and then you cover any further education yourself. The fact that the children in my family get supported through an undergraduate degree is a supreme form of privilege. I had the luxury of moving across the country, of living on my own, of growing up and becoming an adult on my own terms, while pursuing an education that interested me profoundly, without having to worry about my return on investment. The degree is a bonus. I went to university because I wanted to learn. That's another kind of privilege. I had no doubt, coming out of high school, that I could make a go of my life somehow. I have never doubted that I will be fine. I have never doubted that my efforts will result in success.

That extreme confidence and comfort is something I've discussed with friends, other people who come from exceptionally secure upbringings. Even more secure than mine. My friends who went to private school have it in spades. They have no doubt that they're capable of succeeding at any pursuit they choose. So it may be that one of the most profound injustices I see in the world is one based on attitude. No teacher ever pulled me down so much that my parents or other caring adults in my life couldn't raise me back up. No one has ever been capable of convincing me that I am valueless. I am capable of being individual, of choosing for myself, because I have a built-in faith in myself and my choices. I believe that I am right in my decisions or, if not always right, at least able and capable. I have ownership over both my own success and my own failure. I believe in myself. It's not a blind self assurance, but it is a prevailing one.

The profound inequality is that not everyone feels this way. This may actually be the inequality that I care most about. The inequality is that people are routinely made to feel valueless or incompetent or stupid or unwanted and unsuccessful. As if their potential and ability somehow don't matter to the world. As if they can't make substantial change and impact. As if their actions don't change anything. As if they don't have the power to make substantial decisions. As if their lives are just collections of decisions made by circumstance. So there's a sort of inequality in self esteem, personal value and agency. That may be the inequality I care about most. In a way, I think what I'd like to see more of in the world is people believing that they have value, and that others have value. We suffer hugely from small-minded, bigoted and just plain vindictive people putting others down. The act of convincing someone that they are valueless is, to me, on of the most insidious forms of oppression.


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I've been asleep on the job lately when it comes to drawing. Here's an umbrella.