It's often said that challenge and hardship make you stronger, and teach you about yourself. I've been lucky enough to lead an easy, carefree life - I have two amazing parents who support me in every way, I got my Bachelor's degree without taking out student loans, and I've never lost a close family member or friend, to name a few examples. What I had to figure out as I faced relatively minor hardships through my adulthood is that I'm totally unequipped and unprepared to deal with even small levels of pain, suffering, or unfairness. Because I've had it so easy, I've had no practice. I've been unaware of how privileged I am, and got upset or annoyed when people pointed it out.
What I didn't realize is that challenge and hardship, especially when you step back and put it in context, reveals privilege in a humbling way. I'm not sure if it all made me stronger, so much as it made me aware of just how strong others were.
It's hard to describe when I knew that things were changing, but there was just a shift of some sort. Things started feeling a little off balance. Life started being unfair to the people around me. The most concrete place I know to start is when my brother Tim lost his job, in November 2015.
He worked for a camp run by a local church. He had attended the camp, been a counselor at the camp, and after working a draining engineering job for a few years, returned to the camp to become the director. It was more than a career, it was home, it was family. It wasn't always easy living at the camp three months of the year, as he had a young daughter and another child on the way, but he was happy and doing work that felt fulfilling. One Friday, he went to work as normal, and came home unemployed. It was confusing, and sudden, and heartbreaking, and he was let go for reasons that felt out of his control. His wife Erica was 8 months pregnant, and we were all feeling for them - sad, angry, and a little scared.
I had been working as a designer at a small startup firm for about 4 years. The job had its ups and downs, and the small company definitely felt these ebbs and flows more than a larger company would. Still, I enjoyed it, and had learned a lot working there and being thrown right into a project, having to figure out how to solve problems on my own. I was very close to most of my coworkers, and considered them friends and confidantes. They made it easy to come in each day. What happened to my brother made me feel grateful to have a steady job where, even though I didn't make quite as much as I wanted to and couldn't predict how clients would respond to our work, I had a consistent salary and felt on solid ground career-wise for the first time.
About a week later, an all-staff meeting was called, and it was revealed to us that our company was in financial trouble, to the point where they weren't even sure they could pay our next paycheck. We were all stunned. We knew money was tight, as finances often are at a startup. But this turn of events threw us all for a loop, and many of my coworkers were pretty scared. To keep our company afloat, it was decided that a majority of employees would be removed from salary and put on hourly wages instead. We would work only the amount of hours available to us, with a focus on the projects that were closest to their next pay cycle. Our hours could no longer be guaranteed.
This was where my first lesson in privilege began. I was a little disappointed about losing my salary and the stability it provided. I have always been good with finances, thanks to my incredibly supportive parents (did I mention that already?) and was excited that I was finally saving and paying big chunks toward my car loan. Now I may not be able to keep up at that pace anymore. On the other hand, I was super busy at work, and felt like there was very little threat to my position. I was also excited about the flexibility of hourly, especially around the holiday season. I would be fine!
I began to discuss this change in our company with my coworkers and casually gave my opinion on how less hours may have a silver lining, and was stunned when I actually stopped to listen to my friends. One coworker was more than "a little disappointed" in the turn of events; he had so much student debt that he was barely surviving even with his previous salary. Now, with no stability and no guarantee that he would make the same wages, he was in real peril. He would have to start job hunting immediately. Another coworker had bought his first home only months before, and was getting married soon. Yet another had just announced that he had a child on the way. I didn't have any student loans, because my parents had been saving for my education since I was born, and I received a tuition discount because I attended the university where my father worked. I didn't own a home or have much debt. I was leasing a car, but the payments were minimal in comparison. I remember coming home and crying because these people were my friends, but I never stopped to consider how easy I had it, and how people I cared about were going to struggle.
As I predicted, the holiday season WAS nice with the extra flexibility and the decrease in hours. What I didn't expect was just how decreased the hours would become, and how hard this would hit in the new year. I felt confident and busy at the time the announcement occurred, but a majority of my projects ended almost immediately after. Suddenly, I went from working 40 hours to coming in a few days a week. Many of my coworkers experienced an even more drastic drop, especially the two with the student loans and the new house. I felt especially close to the two of them, and it wasn't long before each of them found a new position, and were gone, and I felt a large void where they had been in my life. The void was also opening up inside me; I was getting less and less hours as the weeks went by, was feeling less and less valued at the company, was losing my friends to different jobs and different cities, and cursing the biting cold of winter. I began to fall into a depression, almost too slowly to even realize it was happening.
I began feeling closer to my brother as he trudged on, unemployed. It was a joyous occasion when my nephew was born soon after Christmas, and my brother being home was a godsend for his wife. But he was feeling the same as me career-wise - a lack of value, purpose and motivation. We talked and texted often about how we were feeling, as the weeks went by and my hours became more scarce. After a few months, my finances were finally starting to feel the strain, and once Erica even paid me to babysit, but I felt so guilty I could never accept it again. These kiddos were my family, after all. This was my next lesson in privilege - my brother was receiving unemployment, but it wasn't the same as real wages, and Erica was self-employed with a new baby, which meant even more pressure was put on her. I had no one to support but myself, but my brother and sister-in-law were endlessly supportive of me, both emotionally and financially, despite the hardships they were also going through. Sometimes, I became so self-absorbed in my own challenges and sadness that I didn't bother to consider those around me, and this is incredibly privileged. My own family definitely opened my eyes without even saying a word.
I began selling my belongings. It wasn't a real plan or something I intended to keep doing, but I needed some extra cash. So I posted some things I didn't need that were in good shape - nearly-new shoes, books in great condition, DVDs, craft supplies. I interacted with many people throughout these transactions, and was humbled yet again. Many of these people were shopping these gently used goods because that was all they could afford. I struggled to arrange pick-ups for items because of parents rushing between work and daycare with barely 5 minutes in between to pick up a copy of Toy Story. Selling these items was a temporary fix for me; for others, this was day-to-day life.
I began to work only 5 or 10 hours some weeks. I spent a lot of time perusing websites and researching new and different ways to make extra money. I took surveys online, I tried to cash in an old phone. But the fact that I had all this time began to dawn on me, the fact that I was making a certain amount of money by barely working. My hourly rate was competitive. This means that even though I was working less than 10 hours most weeks, I was still scraping by. Some people make minimum wage and therefore had to work 2 or 3 times the number of hours I did to make the same amount of money. When I finally began to realize this I was floored. Some people worked ALL DAY just to barely earn a living wage. I had all this extra time to brainstorm new ways of making money and apply to jobs and no kids to take care of throughout it all, so all things considered I was incredibly lucky. And I'd never even realized it until I started to feel the all-consuming feeling of "will I be able to pay my rent this month?" A day didn't go by that I didn't think about or worry about finances. Many people feel this way most of their lives.
Still, I often sank into my own confusion and anxiety and shut other people out, or lashed out at them for no reason. I could feel some of the coworkers with whom I had been working seamlessly just months before bristle or flinch when I spoke to them. I could hear the razor that was sometimes on the edge of my words, but felt like I couldn't control it, that my bitterness and disappointment was overshadowing my perspective. The fact that I recognized it and did not apologize or work to change this just added to the shame I was feeling, which in turn caused me to lash out even more. I continued spiraling down a vortex of depression at work, barely able to focus on the few tasks I had left.
One day in February, I was hanging out at Tim and Erica's house, playing with my niece and nephew, when I received a text from a close friend "B". Something was very out of the ordinary about this, as she lives out of town and we usually text only when we're planning our next get-together with our other close friend "S". The text asked "Are you busy?" I showed my brother the phone with a furrowed brow, since he knew this friend, and I proclaimed aloud that the text gave me a bad feeling. I answered her with "At Tim and Erica's, what's up?" and she asked "Can I call you?" I said yes and headed to a quieter room to take the call, and could barely make out words through B's tears. She confessed that her fiancee had broken up with her, and I was the first person she had told because I was the first to answer her text. It was difficult to talk to her, mostly because she was in so much pain and was so many miles away and I could do nothing about it. It also reminded me immediately of how unprepared I was for hardship. I had been through breakups but never a broken engagement, and had no idea what to say or what to do. I had never been the first one someone had told something so painful to. We talked for awhile and I encouraged her to call her parents next, which she was afraid to do. Over the next weeks, me and her and our other close friend S were in contact basically every day, keeping up with her progress. She was in med school and I knew this was all very stressful for her.
Then something even more terrible happened. One Saturday in April, I received a text from a friend "H". It read "SOS - call me". There was certainly something out of the ordinary about this text too, and I had flashbacks to the breakup text from a couple months back and immediately assumed that H had broken up with her boyfriend of a few years. I felt sad for her when I called, but I never could have expected what I actually heard. Our mutual friend "L" had just told H that her brother had committed suicide. I felt devastated for L and completely helpless. What could I do? What did I know? I called L but she didn't answer, and I wasn't surprised. I left a message offering my condolences and support, but I knew something had happened that I was not the least bit prepared for. Death. Loss of a young person. Loss of a sibling. The thought of losing Tim made me sob. I was so lucky.
Over the next days, L posted about her grief and I talked to her a little. I attended her brother's funeral, which was cruelly a day after her birthday, but the service was beautiful and honest. I worried about L constantly, as she had been going through a lot - she was finishing her last semester of school and she was pregnant. A week or so later, our close group of girl friends planned an afternoon at H's house to just be together and provide an escape for L. The night before, L, S, and I were texting about what time we wanted to leave to get to H's house, and I was unknowingly being wishy-washy and contradictory about the timing. L called me out on it, and said that what I was doing was causing her so much stress during a time where she could barely even hold it together. When I received that text I cried for HOURS. I'm not even kidding. I felt so terrible when I looked back at the conversation and realized how frustrating I was being, and the thought of adding any extra burden to L during this difficult time basically made me go off the deep end. Every time I thought I was done crying I felt a fresh wave of shame and began to sob again, and it was such a reality check for me. I feel like I've been privileged enough to have not been called out on my bullshit by anyone most of my life. Even though this was such a small incident, it had a profound impact on me, probably more than L even knows. I apologized to her in the car the next day and thanked her for calling me out so I could keep working on myself.
I attended two more funerals over the next month, again for family of people I was close to. I watched twice more as people I cared for cried and tried to pick up the broken pieces, and was reminded again and again how lucky I was. The same day of one of these funerals, I had my first job interview.
I had been applying to jobs for a few months, as it had become pretty clear to me that things were not going to pick up for me at work. I searched halfheartedly almost daily, until as I was closing my computer one night a posting caught my eye. It was a position at a company that I knew and respected, and it was the first time I have ever read through a posting's job qualifications and realized I fit EVERY ONE. This job was perfect for me. I spent the next day scrambling to put together a cover letter, resume and portfolio that were tailored to the position and sent them in. And then I waited. And waited, and waited. I called the office and was updated that they had received my resume and were reviewing all of them that week, so I felt a little better. Just as I was starting to give up on the idea of the position, I received a call to set up an interview. I went in the next week feeling pretty good, and I have to say I nailed the interview. I could tell that they liked me, and could see that my responses were resonating with their team. I left the room feeling confident and light, despite the fact that I was on my way to a funeral afterwards.
The next day, the company followed up asking for references. I was thrilled - this was sure to be a good sign! I collected a few people in my life who I felt would provide great references for me, and they all reported back that they had been called the next day. Then I waited again... And waited, and waited. I followed up with HR only to be assured that they hadn't gotten around to having the meeting to make the final decision. Still, I felt confident that I had the job in the bag. Finally I received an email, and it was a rejection letter. I felt my bottom drop out, and over the next few days began to question everything about my choice of major. If I had been a perfect match for the job, and had nailed the interview, and they STILL hadn't picked me, would I ever make it in the design world? Would I ever find another position that well suited for me again? I was knocked off the pedestal that said I deserved and earned that job - apparently, I didn't. I learned that things would not - and maybe should not - be handed to me that easily. I felt so lost, but tried to put in perspective that I was still employed, and had a degree that made it possible to apply for jobs with competitive wages.
I applied for a few other jobs over the next month, receiving only rejection letters or no response at all. Finally, as a last resort, I applied for a job outside of my major and ideal salary range - a part time job as a library shelver. I almost didn't apply to it because it was a little far away from my home in a less than "ideal" neighborhood, but I received a call back soon after. As I was walking to the meeting room my interviewers had to stop to remind a group of rowdy middle school boys to behave and quiet down, and it should have been a clue to what I was in for but it wasn't. I was called back within days and offered the job, and I accepted.
When I started, the library was flooded with a wide diversity of families, especially black, Somalian and Latino. There were kids running around, screaming, jumping, fighting, pulling books off shelves and not many parents in sight. Reality check again. Some families had to use the library to drop off their children so they could go to work or run their errands, and often an older sibling who was barely of babysitting age was in charge of the younger ones. As I walked around, I heard English being taught to children and adults alike, I heard reading and spelling being tutored to struggling kids, I heard worried parents discussing how to get their child to progress in reading skills. I felt shame, humility and gratitude all at the same time because I was a white child with two supportive parents who were able to give me lots of attention. I didn't struggle in school, I didn't have to learn a different language, I didn't feel discriminated against.
The fact is, as open and accepting as I consider myself, I am still a little racist. No one wants to admit this about themselves, but I'm hoping that by acknowledging it, I can work on it. As I spend time in the library I will catch myself thinking "of COURSE that black mom has 4 young kids that she barely watches" or "of COURSE that Latino girl can barely speak English" or even worse. Then I think "crap, I can't believe I just thought that. Stereotypes are persisting because of people like ME." Oh man. Another example of my privilege... they're getting easier and easier to identify. Because of all the shootings in the recent news, I've read a lot of articles on privilege, especially white privilege. I'm hoping that being able to recognize and identify moments of privilege will get me closer to being an accepting, humble and graceful human being.
Recently I read at the library with a little Latino girl who could barely recognize her ABCs in English. I struggled through the reading session but she was so sweet that I felt good about it. The next day she was back and I noticed her hanging around me and smiling up at me a lot. At the end of the day, she and her mom were leaving the library when she stopped to tug her mom's hand. They exchanged a few words, then the little girl approached me and asked very politely if she could give me a hug. I nearly started crying right there on the spot. This girl's education was going to be challenging, and her life potentially an uphill battle, but she was such a grateful and sweet little kid. I could learn a lot from her. I hope she knows that her hug made my week and I've thought of it every day since.
A month or so ago, I began helping out a friend of mine with social media and odds and ends in my free time, since he was busy and wanted to keep his business running smoothly, and I could use the extra cash. Fast forward to yesterday, which was my last day at the design firm. My friend and I had determined that there was enough available work to fill up even more of my time, so I could finally take a risk and step away from the company who'd taught me so much but had started to push me in a new direction. I was truly in disbelief, that after so much disappointment related to job hunting, something even more perfect had just fallen into my lap that made it all worth the wait. I am working with a friend, for a company I believe in. For the first time in awhile I feel happy, free, and best of all, grateful for what I have. My family, my friends, my job, my home, my boyfriend, food, books, knitting, creativity, stability, support, flexibility, and my incredibly privileged life. How beautiful and delicious it is.