14 July 2009

reflections on "the way 'we' live now."

David Brooks' column really got me today. I have been following the Sotomayor confirmation pretty closely because I've found it all together horrifying. The questions mustered under the euphemistic concern over her "identity"- her race, ethnic heritage, and gender (pick your construct!) have angered me deeply. Is this the America I live in? Why is her racial identity an issue when John Roberts' wasn't?

So I've been mad because it's so out of control and as a homeless person I can't open the safety valve with a quick email to my elected representative (Utahns, do you know what your senior senator has been up to today?). Fortunately the Brooks column helped me to see a different side of things. He looks at Sotomayor's biography and says, yah, it's an awesome American story about civil rights coming a long way, but also, "It’s the upward mobility story — about a person who worked hard and contributes profoundly to society, but who also sacrificed things along the way."

Brooks then goes on to catalog Sotomayor's relationships throughout her life- an extended family as a child, mentors, friends, and a spouse as an adult. This was the part of the piece that really hit me. Excuse the lengthy quote:

"This isn’t the old story of a career woman trying to balance work and family. This is the story of pressures that affect men as well as women ... It’s the story of people in a meritocracy that gets more purified and competitive by the year, with the time demands growing more and more insistent.

These profiles give an authentic glimpse of a style of life that hasn’t yet been captured by a novel or a movie — the subtle blend of high-achiever successes, trade-offs and deep commitments to others. In the profiles, you see the intoxicating lure of work, which provides an organizing purpose and identity. You see the web of mentor-mentee relationships — the courtship between the young and the middle-aged, and then the tensions as the mentees break off on their own. You see the strains of a multicultural establishment, in which people try to preserve their ethnic heritage as they ascend into the ranks of the elite. "

I wish I didn't feel this so deeply. I'm not pretentious enough to say I'm apart of the "elite" or to seriously self-identify as "a high achiever," nor am I naive enough to think that these strains are limited to those of a particular educational level or class attainment. But, I can say wholeheartedly that I have felt what Brooks describes, and to see it on 'paper' freaked me out, but it also gave me a lot of comfort. Particularly when I consider the crazy semester I just finished, where the work I loved started to feel like my undoing and I struggled to negotiate my role as a "mentee," it was nice for someone in the world to point out that yes, this is common.

Brooks concludes powerfully that in Sotomayor's story, "You see the way people not only choose a profession, it chooses them. It changes them in a way they probably didn’t anticipate at first.... You don’t succeed at that level without developing a single-minded focus, and struggling against its consequences."

Every time I read that quote, the tears come right into my eyes. I don't think I ever could have comprehended how consuming graduate school would be- the development of my single-mindedness was for me a somewhat painful process. It happened as soon as I started my program, as I confronted what it meant to miss my nieces' birthday and how little time and energy I had to manage the significant issues I had with my faith. It wasn't that those things quit mattering or that I became immune to the sting I felt from them, but like pioneers chucking stuff out of a wagon to lighten the load, I learned how to tune stuff out that wasn't right in front of me so I could handle the tasks at hand. I think that's been the craziest part-- somewhere between those heartrending first couple of months and the moment towards the end when moving east didn't seem like such a big deal because it felt like the only deal. It's still something that's constantly being reconciled, but I would say by and large, at some point the consequences stopped feeling sad and ultimately I've gotten to the point where doing what needs to be done so I can do what I want to do makes me really happy.

Nobody told me that that would happen.

(Brooks doesn't talk about the happiness element much, but that's what this article made me think about. Being successful isn't entirely about surrendering relationships as he runs the risk of implying, but man, you do learn how to become happy spending time with yourself).


jana said...

What's breaking my heart right now about my graduate pursuits is that I did all of this sacrificing & single-mindedness thinking that it would lead me on a path towards a lifetime of such work. Now that jobs are basically nonexistent in my field, I am really discouraged...

Anonymous said...

I say make your own path. If there is no job than make one, grad school is an awesome accomplishment so be independent and go for it. Mel you have written a wonderful editorial. Maybe there is a column in your future. Excellent points!

Anonymous said...


thank you for writing this. I have felt the very same lately. Grad school + work has put a strain on every relationship I have. No one really understands why it is so important to me, but it is. I have a single minded focus to do what I started and achieve my dreams. I will write you a much more detailed email in a bit.

Thanks again for being you...