Monday, March 22, 2004

Living in a Material World

The past few weeks have been spent pondering my future. Not just the immediate trials and tribulations of finding a summer job in law nor the somewhat more intermediate question of whether to transfer back east for next fall, but the more eternal quest for meaning and guiding or ordering principles for life.

I came to law school with the express purpose of positioning myself for a big firm job in transactional practice. For most of my adult life I had been involved in public service in one form or another, but I thought that in order to be a grown up I needed to start considering my economic needs and how my income would allow for a certain degree of financial stability for myself and a future family. In my mind I rationalized away any conflict with my innermost need to engage in work that was somehow in the public good through a series of mental judo moves. Whether it was telling myself that a career in public finance would be helpful to others by securing funding for building schools and hospitals or imagining myself as some sort of regulatory sheriff protecting the interests of pensioners as an SEC attorney I got quite good at satisfying myself that what I was doing was not some sort of selfish indulgence.

Unfortunately, such self delusion can last only so long. And in the past month or so I have moped around, grasping and groping for an answer to why I was so unhappy. Was it that my family and girlfriend were a thousand miles away? Was it my frustration with the administration and general unhappiness with my law school? Or, maybe there was something much deeper behind my malaise.

After thinking through my emotional highs and lows over the past many years, one thing stuck out. Each time I have disengaged from public service, misery has soon followed. Something deep inside me needs the sort of satisfaction that comes from helping others and being engaged in a community. I seem able to weather short periods of detachment, but after a certain point there descends on me a feeling of absence.

It has been just over a year since I left my last position in government. A good chunk of the intervening time has been spent filling out law school applications, moving and beginning law school. And, the blog has (had) been my way of trying to be engaged in something larger than just my own little world. But more and more I felt as though I was ranting from a soapbox in a deserted town square. And the more I heard the echoing of my own voice, the more I was turned off by its tendency towards shrillness and felt that I was becoming bitter and cynical.

There has always been a certain level of frustration present in my refusal to accept society and its institutions as they are. I am not one to merely sit back and let the current take me where it may lead and this can cause problems in both my personal and professional life. But from that same fountain of emotion comes my passion to do good. It is vitally important to me, and to my well being, that I be engaged in creating what I believe to be a good and just society.

This dawned on me the other day in an interview that I had with the Family Court. When asked why I wanted the position I told them because it was something that I needed, not wanted. I needed to be doing the sort of work that would impact kids' lives; that if I did not have this sort of opportunity I would feel guilty for taking three years of my life off to attend law school.

The obvious corollary to this is that I am, more or less, consigning myself to a life of relative poverty as either a government or public interest lawyer. (nb: unless I opt for the law professor track) And thus I am back to exactly where I was about ten years ago- a mountain of debt with a meager potential income. To say that it is frustrating is beyond understatement. Thinking about how much some of my classmates will earn when we leave law school inspires a bit of envy, and the realization that I may actually have a life outside of work does little to reduce a mortgage sized education debt. Sure, I can assuage myself with knowing that the work I will be doing has much more intrinsic value than shuffling around some papers in furtherance of some tax avoidance scheme.

But I come back to something a very dear friend said to me many years ago. He said that there was something terribly wrong with a society that places such a higher value on helping the rich get richer than helping suicidal kids get better. I suppose, though, that if that was not the case and our society valued the important work that millions of teachers, lawyers, childcare workers, social workers, etc. do each and every day I would have considerably less work to do in making this a better and more just place.


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