Beyond Room 119

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Not quite the stomach bug

The comparison bug hit me this morning.

It doesn’t come around often, so it’s arrival was a bit of a surprise. The catalyst was a birth announcement on Facebook. The new mother is a friend from college, who was one of the most free spirits I’ve met. She’s a yoga teacher and beach lover who would frequently play “London” as we drove through the streets of San Diego. (In London, they drive on the other side of the road. I’ll let you connect the dots.) I haven’t talked to her since graduation and I haven’t kept up with her life, so it was a bit of a surprise to all of a sudden see her with a little munchkin.

Rewind to last night, when I was spending time with a friend from my graduate program. The cohort that I entered the program with will be graduating this May (As a part-time student, I’ll graduate a semester later than the full-time students). He was showing me something from another class and in the process, we came across his resume. Holy Toledo, he’s student affairs MVP. His resume was full of direct experience and bullet point after bullet point of managing student programs, supervising student groups, creating conduct boards, managing budgets…the list went on and on. I had to stop and think for a minute. The full-time students in the program all likely have similar resumes, with incredible, directly relevant experience.

For some reason, these two events combined to create the little comparison bug, who then asked me, “Well, how do you stack up?”

It’s an multifaceted question. Personally, my life is radically different than that of my old friend. She has a significant other and now a child; while I certainly have close friendships, there is no one that I feel responsible for or someone to answer to. Professionally, on paper, I don’t stack up so well when compared to my classmates. There are gaps in certain areas that I would like to address, and I have a lot of professional growth to do. If I were to apply for the same jobs that other folks in my program are applying to, I probably wouldn’t make the cut. And when you stop the comparison there, that’s a tough spot to be in.

And then there’s its cousin, the “what if?” bug. That one says, “Well, what if you had done this differently? What if you had, say, enrolled in grad school full time? What if you had stayed in California? Where would your life be?” It’s easier for me to respond to that bug, so that’s what I did this morning. As I drove to work on the funniest named freeway in America (the Beltline? Really?), I thought about what wouldn’t have happened if I had done grad school full time. My first, immediate thought was that I never would have found my second family. My running crew out here (though they aren’t quite my running crew these days) is full of people who are the among the most inspiring, supportive, thoughtful, talented, and truly amazing people that I’ve ever met. That alone was enough to not only silence, but completely squash, that “what if?” bug. But then my brain kept going. I would have lived closer to campus, and wouldn’t have had an incredible year living with one of my closest friends. The family dinners, weekday Masses, the impromptu conversations that kept us up way too late, the random adventures (and misadventures) around town – none of that would have happened. And then it goes even farther. I love the time I spend with my current roommate, who seems so normal until you see just how quirky and funny she is. Spontaneous games of Rummikub, making puzzles together, laughing as she picks off every red pepper off anything in front of her – I wouldn’t trade those moments, as small as they may seem. Then I think about the friend here who has shown me just how much it means to simply show up, regardless of whatever else might be going on. And the list goes on and on.

These lessons, these moments, these relationships – none of them would have happened had I stayed in California. Had I chosen to complete grad school a different way. If I had done anything in my life differently, I have no idea what would have happened or where I would be now. But it’s easy enough to look at the reverse and see what wouldn’t have happened, who I never would have met, what I never would have learned. I doubt that I would have run a marathon. I probably wouldn’t be learning guitar. I wouldn’t have visited the Atlantic Ocean, and thus, wouldn’t know definitively that the Pacific is the better ocean. I wouldn’t have learned the same lessons about love, sacrifice, and relationships.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and thinking through this right now, I have to agree. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would look at my life and consider it unfulfilling or strange. And that’s perfectly fine, because there are plenty of people that, if I lived their lives, I would be bored and unfulfilled. And that’s the beauty of it. We each have different personalities, unique gifts, and individual needs. The problem is, Facebook helps us to forget our individuality. We stack the entirety of our lives up against the highlight reel of those around us. We disregard the little moments, forgetting that those are pieces that make each day enjoyable and beautiful. And we become miserable in the process.

Happiness isn’t something that just happens, but rather, it is a choice we make at each moment of every day. And while it’s okay to stumble along the way, we’re the ones responsible for picking ourselves up and telling ourselves that this frustration, this disappointment, or this pain isn’t the end. It’s one step along the journey, and ultimately, it gives us the opportunity to forge ourselves into who we want to be.

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Lessons learned from a puzzle

The last time I did a puzzle, it was of the movie The Little Mermaid and the pieces were bigger than my young hands. So when my mom gave me a 500 piece puzzle last Christmas, I appreciated her thoughtfulness, but it went straight into the corner of my living room and sat there for over a year, abandoned and forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until the snow hit this weekend and my roommate and I pulled it out. She smiled when she saw the picture, but we dumped out the pieces and got to work. I guess all puzzles are hard, but this one felt like a stinker. So many parts of it were exactly the same color, and it was slow going. We worked on it together and separately, bit by bit, and this morning, we eventually finished it. I felt a sense of pride as we put the last piece in together and laughed at our accomplishment.

It’s funny, how much we can learn about life from little things. As I worked on the puzzle, I was struck by how many tenets fit both this micro world of the puzzle and the macro world around me. Here are some of the life lessons that I was reminded of as I worked on this behemoth:

You can’t always do it alone: My roommate and I started working on it together. It was agonizingly slow at first, but we got something started. When I woke up the next morning, she had finished a good piece of it – enough for me to realize that we actually could finish it. More than sensing the light at the end of the tunnel, it was also just plain fun to work together on it – both of us focused, U2 in the background, and exclaiming, “Ring a ling!” every time we got a piece.

Persistence pays off: There were more than a few times that I wanted to quit. But an even bigger part of me wanted to finish what I started. When I was working on the outside, sometimes I had to try every single piece with the same configuration to find the match. It was slow going for a while, but eventually, it paid off. Progress takes time.

Sometimes, you need a bit of luck: That technique of trying all the pieces that might fit sometimes meant that the very last piece that I tried was the right one. Other times, the second piece I tried fit. You never know when you’ll find the missing link.

When you’re on a roll, go with it: When I got in a few in a row, the excitement built and the time flew. One night, I looked at the clock and realized I had spent over an hour on it, when I intended just to fit a few pieces. Many more than a few pieces later, I stopped for the night.

And when you’re not, set a small goal, and stop after you meet it: When I was frustrated that I couldn’t make any fit, I wanted to give up. And I would – after meeting a smaller, more manageable goal. It made me want to come back to the table the next day. Things always look better with fresh eyes.

Peace can be found in the most minute of activities: One night, I was frustrated with something, and it was getting under my skin more than I would have liked. I blasted music on the drive home, tried deep breathing, and nothing worked. I sat down to work on the puzzle, and by the time I wound up for the night, I was at ease. Sometimes giving your brain permission to focus on nothing complex is just what you need.

Life’s never going to be perfect. And that’s precisely what makes it perfect: When we finished our puzzle, we had one piece missing. It was a brand new puzzle, so I don’t know if it got lost somehow or if the manufacturer left it out. Our puzzle is now sitting on our coffee table with a funny little hole on the right side. The coolest part about this is no matter how many other hundreds of people complete the same puzzle, theirs will never be the same as the one we created.

As much fun as the puzzle was (and it was, in a strange way), I don’t think I’m in danger of opening another one anytime soon. Looks like I’ll have to learn my next life lesson another way!

Version 2


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From the soapbox: Mass incarceration in America

As a kid, you get the fairy-tale version of America. “Christopher Columbus colonized America and was a great friend to the indigenous people already here,” they tell you. “The Emancipation Proclamation set all slaves free,” is another favorite. My entire eighth-grade social studies class focused on, “The system of checks and balances in our government ensures that one branch isn’t too powerful and that everyone gets equal treatment.”

And how about the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery?

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

It abolished slavery, all right. Well, unless you happen to be caught up in the American penal system today (see the “except as punishment for a crime” clause above). If that’s the case, you have about the same rights as the slaves of the 1800s.

Consider this ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court in Ruffin v. Commonwealth in 1871.

“For a time, during his service in the penitentiary, he is in a state of penal servitude to the State. He has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being a slave of the State. He is civiliter mortus; and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man.”

I know what I first thought when I read that. “Well, that’s from ages ago. I’m sure the laws have changed since then.” The sad thing is, although the letter of the law has shifted quite a bit, the spirit of the law is still alive and strong.

I don’t know when the American criminal justice system first appeared on my horizon. It’s been at least a few years now since I first realized the problem of mass incarceration and the incredible rates at which our nation criminalizes individuals. Although the United States has about 5% of the world’s population, we have the distinctive honor of housing 25% of the world’s prison population. In terms of numbers, we’ve skyrocketed in recent decades. In 1970, the American prison population was just above 350,000; by 2013, it was over 2.2 million.

To a small extent, I’ve also been aware of racial issues within this realm. In college, I learned that a man would go to jail for five years for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine, but possession of a mere five grams of crack cocaine triggers the same sentence. Crack can be vaporized and inhaled for a much faster and intense high, which makes it both effective in small doses and more affordable. Crack cocaine is associated with blacks; powder cocaine with whites. You do the math. (To be fair, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Law into effect in 2010, which reduced the ratio to 18:1. Progress to be sure, but a disparity still exists.)

However, it has only been recently that more and more of the pieces have come together in my head as I’ve learned more about how race is intertwined with our prison system. In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the American system of mass incarceration is in essence a reincarnation of Jim Crow, the system of laws meant to systematically oppress African Americans. She outlines the various ways in which the prison system today creates an “undercaste” of African American who are labeled as criminals and kept on the fringes of society, long after they have served their prison time.

I like reading books that make me think, that challenge my thinking, and cause me to step back and process. This book seemed to do this every few pages. I can’t include everything that has struck me while reading this book here, but I do want to focus on one particular aspect: the role of the Supreme Court in creating, maintaining, and propagating a system meant to subjugate an entire race.

I know the Supreme Court isn’t perfect. It decided in Plessey v. Ferguson that separate but equal schooling was indeed equal, an idea that seems laughable to many of us today. But as I learn about more specific cases, I just have a hard time believing that it happened here. And then I think about it, and as sad as it is, realize that I can see that, after all.

Here are some of the star players:

  • McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) – the Supreme Court ruled that racial bias must be explicit for it to be considered as a motivating factor.
    • Who is going to walk up to someone and say, “I hate you because of your race,” and then commit whatever action they had in mind?
  • Armstrong v. US (1992) – prosecutors have full power to decide what court (federal or state) in which to charge defendants
    • Coincidentally, when a black man is brought to court on drug charges, he tends to go to a federal court, which has more stringent charges. A white man for the same offense tends to go to a state court.
  • Purkett v. Elm (1995) – Lawyers can strike a black from sitting on a jury for any “silly or superstitious” reason, including long hair or a mustache.
    • This one speaks for itself.
  • Alexander v. Sandoval (2001) – Only the federal government can sue to enforce Title VI (which holds antidiscriminatory provisions) of the Civil Rights Act
    • As this was what the majority of previous civil rights legislation had been brought to court under, organizations such as the ACLU and individuals suddenly had the door to the courthouse slammed in front of them.

I’m many things right now. Aghast that this is how the highest court in our land rules. Upset that there are so many issues within this one umbrella. Guilty of my lack of awareness. Aware that as a white female, I’ll never truly understand what the weight of this system feels like on a daily basis. Frustrated beyond belief that in Chicago (and elsewhere), young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college.

Reform to an entire system doesn’t happen overnight, and bias doesn’t disappear in a day. These kinds of changes will likely take decades. However, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that blindness and indifference to racial groups cause more harm than outright racial hostility. So with awareness and knowledge, I’m trying to take the first steps of challenging my own assumptions and ignorance. As I fight my own blindness, I’ll learn to see more – and just as importantly, to see more clearly.


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On pain

There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship. Many of us recognize this truth as young as adolescence, or even earlier. So why do we engage in these things if it’s impossible to get it just right?

I recently read a reflection by a friend who explored the connection between relationships and faith. After all, how do you know exactly what someone else is thinking about you? How do you know that someone about whom you care also cares about you? He ended it in a beautiful way, by deciding that relationships often require faith. Faith to know the other person cares about you for who you are and that they will accept you- warts, bad habits, little quirks, and all.

Through the years, I’ve had a good number of relationships that have caused me pain. Sometimes it’s easy to retreat into myself and think, “Why did I put myself out there? Why did I try, yet again?” More recently, the questions have been, “Really, God? Why did you bring this into my life?”

And that pain hurts. It hurt when I was in high school and didn’t talk to my father for six months. It hurts when I wish things were different with a sibling, when I feel like they don’t care. It hurts when I have to say goodbye to someone I love.

In the moments of raw pain, I sometimes think, “Is this worth it?” And my answer to that is to compare the good to the pain. I ask myself if there is enough goodness that arose from this that makes it okay. You can’t have a rose without thorns, and in the same way, you can’t have love without pain. Just look at the ultimate act of love and you’ll see the ultimate form of suffering at the same time – the two are inextricably combined there on the cross.

Recognizing this doesn’t erase the hurt, for only time can do that. But it does help to put it in perspective. In The Princess Bride, the lead character tells the beautiful princess, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Yes, life has pain, and I’ll never discount or trivialize the pain that anyone feels, regardless of the cause. But I think it’s more important to remember the beauty that happens before, during, after, in spite of, and yes, because of, that pain. As one of my favorite authors wrote, “When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.” (Paolo Coelho)

And that, more than anything else, is the truth that I try to live by.