Your resume depends on poverty

GTD, Moleskine & Resume


And racism. And our dying planet. And cancer. And suffering of all other sorts.

I may have already lost you. Your face is probably red, fists clenched, ready to rebut. But take a look at your resume. I’m sure there’s a “service” section, per the career center’s advice, enumerating all of the good you’ve done for the world. That UDab trip, your summer volunteer work. I sure have one. It’s probably right near the top, too. You’ve helped rebuild communities, fight inequalities, empower the youth and more — doing what you can to alleviate the world’s suffering.

I’m by no means suggesting that all of the good in your life has been a mere matter of economic opportunism, proving to prospective employers that you want to help the world. More than most, I believe in the capacity to do good for reasons extrinsic to the market, and even extrinsic to the individual. But there’s no overlooking the parasitic relationship between your future material gain and the world’s suffering.

But that misses the point, you might say. Sure, you’ve helped others in the past and put it on your resume, which technically required that there be suffering people to help, but it’s all a means to a better end, and your resume only tells a fraction of the story. You don’t just build a resume around service — you build a life around it, finding fulfillment in helping others and making the world a better place.

Like most good people, you’ve constructed this future vision around helping others, planning to do good in the world and die fulfilled. The university has supplied you with endless majors and extracurricular opportunities to do so. You might dedicate your future to fighting socioeconomic inequalities with a public service career, or combating climate change, or saving lives in a hospital. Few could deny that this, a life of service, is the very stuff of “the good life.”

But what would you do if all of it — the warming planet, poverty, disease — went away?

The fatal (and I mean fatal) flaw of this “good life” we envision is that it depends on the bad life of millions of others. The righteous life of service that you intend to live and die by requires that there be something to serve, and hence someone who suffers. It requires that you remain empowered, through your education and privilege, to help that suffering someone.

In other words, by treating service and “helping others” as an end in itself, we perpetuate the very problems we purport to resolve. Our dominant conception of social good is inextricably tied to the bad. If this is what “doing what you love” means, then you’re nothing short of a sadist, clinging onto your social luxuries and power.

In the Middle Ages, well-to-do Catholics grappled with this conundrum, struggling with the fact that serving others as a means of salvation requires perpetual poverty and suffering. I’m not blaming Catholics for anything (at least not this), but it’s worth noting that there are still lots of Catholics, and people still give their ten percent, and they still feel good about it, and they still think they’re going to heaven, and poverty and suffering aren’t going away anytime soon.

We have yet to adequately conceive of “what comes next,” after we achieve equality and eradicate disease and so on, and I doubt we’ll be forced to anytime soon. The major problems facing our world will not likely be resolved in this lifetime. But you have to function as though they will. If nobody cares to answer “what comes next,” complacently assuming that it’s another generation’s task and proceeding with their “good lives” of serving, then all of that “good” is nothing short of disingenuous, selfish and short-sighted.

If you really think what you’re doing is “progressive” and good, then it has to be progressing toward something, and that something can’t be an abstract, easy conception of “good.” It’s got to be real and practical, an actual “something” that you foresee for the world. If not, are you really working toward anything?

So, as you depart campus next week, going off to serve individuals and communities on alternative spring break trips, try thinking about “what comes next.” Don’t settle for “loving to serve.” Instead, reflect on the actual work you’re doing, whether it be planting gardens or laying drywall, and think about what that labor would mean if it wasn’t for some “greater good.” Acknowledge that your resume, life plans and identity depend on all of the bad stuff. Treat living, thinking and forming friendships as the real ends-in-themselves, and try to envision a world that really is “good.”

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