On Maturity & Responsibility, Part 2: The Beautiful Burden

I’ve been talking with lots of millennial Democrats recently as part of my job, so allow me to borrow one of the millennial Democrat’s favorite phrases: I am a man of “privilege.” I am under no threat socially, politically, or materially; I have more than enough money to survive and even thrive with my expensive videography hobby; and while I am not white, I am indeed a cis-gendered dude.

And since I can only speak truthfully from my experience, it has not been lost on me — not one bit — that my privilege has largely come from my career as a union organizer of low-wage workers. It’s a huge contradiction — to live comfortably in helping low-wage workers come together to improve their material conditions. And while I’ve been doing this long enough to where I no longer feel guilty about my standing — my frame is that we need to bring EVERYONE up to a breathable living standard, not tear any worker down — I do at times feel guilty about the profound meaning with which I get to imbue my life.

I get to come to work every day — and while oftentimes (I’m just being honest) the politics of the labor movement are infuriating, at the end of the day I get to say I do something I love and hold dear. Put it another way, my career often makes for some deeply unhappy days. But regardless I get to engage — every day — in deep conversations, human connection, empowerment, and Meaning.

I’ve unionized enough work places — and talked with enough workers — to know that not everyone gets to engage in existential meaning, and those who do often find their meaning outside of work. To me the beautiful burden of meaning is, at least within an existential frame, the deepest privilege of all.

***

As a rule eighteen year old first-year University students have less than zero idea who they are, what the world is like, or how they’d like to relate to the world. They desperately grasp for meaning wherever they can, and — just like every other first-year University student, I constantly changed my major. But probably in a way-more-than-average way than most University students — certainly if my Facebook essays from back then are any indication — I was truly haunted by the idea of how to live the most ethical, meaningful life.

I eventually settled on an Environmental Policy major because, well, if we don’t fix the climate, humanity is doomed. That’s the Biggest, existential threat, right? But maybe not. Don’t you need a mass movement of people to fix the structures in place that cause climate catastrophe in the first place. What’s the role of government. What can government do. How do social movements work. Who am I. What are my social skills. Who can I grow into. Sh*t, who can I NOT grow into. What can be done realistically. How can we create the conditions to go beyond even our most optimistic fantasies, and where do our imagined political possibilities come from. Which psychoanalytic Marxist traditions should I study. Oh wait, this critical theory stuff these grad students are talking about seems pretty cool, etc. etc. etc. My mind went on and on and on, non-stop, pretty much for the entirety of my University experience — and in a deeply unhealthy, desperate, frenetic way.

I think the biggest reason my mind would go on and on and on is that I was — truly in every sense of the word — just pure potential. Every eighteen year old is just pure potential. Eighteen year olds just have not had the time to do all that much, and they certainly have not yet become the people they could become in order to do meaningful stuff in the world. And the second biggest reason I think my mind would go on and on and on — again, certainly if my old Facebook essays are any indication — is that I’ve always just been sort of a lateral thinker, and that’s sort of how I operate. I’ve always just had a lot to say, a lot of widely varied interests, and a way of connecting those thoughts and interests through verbal communication. My goal here isn’t to puff myself up as a particularly bright guy or anything. I’m really just trying to communicate that, because of how lateral my thinking is, my natural “thought-being” added immensely to the difficulty of my incessant search for how to live an ethical, meaningful life.

As I said, I was pretty haunted. In a deeply unhealthy, frenetic way, I think I went over the UC Davis course catalogue three or four times a week, trying to decide which classes to take and in which order. Anyone who could have philosophical conversations about politics and ontology, etc., I harassed to have conversations with me. Like, actually harassed. It wasn’t good. I wasn’t being a good person in my process of finding out how to become the good person I wanted to become.

It took me years to come to the realization that “good people” do make efforts to do good stuff, but that goodness doesn’t come from a desperate place.

***

I’m twenty-seven years old now, and while I feel as though I am just getting started, I’ve done a lot of the things that I had set out to do. I’ve helped organize thousands of workers to join labor unions, I’ve built relationships that are deeply meaningful to me, and I’ve found hobbies and systems to help try to balance the edge that comes along with my career.

I’m twenty-seven years old now, and a lot of my potential has been burnt. I mean, theoretically I could start over — many people start over, even in their thirties and beyond — but it’s also not lost on me that it’s been almost a DECADE since I first started college. A decade is a long time. I’ve already made decisions about who I am, how I think about the world, and how I want to relate to the world. Having made those decisions is crucial, and with deep pain and sacrifice I could change those core decisions — but lots of precious, limited time and energy will have become forever gone.

I do very much see myself as some sort of political change agent within the Left for the rest of my life — and while my life investments are not set in stone, I have indeed made many large and deep investments into how I’d like my relationship with my chosen life ethos to be.

I don’t think any of this is a bad thing. I think this is precisely how life works, and it’s my core thesis to this rant.

Core thesis: You burn potential for meaning. And as I arrive at my late twenties, I think maturity, then, is burning as much potential as possible for that meaning, taking on so much meaning that it is no longer just meaning, but: responsibility.

I mentioned earlier that sometimes my job makes me unhappy.

We are less than three weeks away from what is so far the most consequential election of my lifetime. The campaign I’m working on is neck-and-neck in the polls — and on top of my day job, I’ve been making films for progressive candidates and organizations. I am literally non-stop working. I am stressed out. I am not a happy guy right now.

But here’s a secondary thesis: Life isn’t about happiness. Happiness is ephemeral, and you cannot will happiness into being. Anyway happiness is not as deep as meaning. Given that I have the privilege of being financially secure, I’ll take meaning over happiness — at least to a large extent. And meaning I can control.

A happy life is fine, I guess. A meaningful life is actually lived.

***

And I think most people know that deep down.

It’s not a truth that you can scientifically prove. It’s not a truth that you can debate in the abstract. But you can play it out within your being, and see for yourself.

We all know we have potential. When we burn that potential by making deep decisions to become better, more concrete, more complete people than we were yesterday, I think we feel meaning deep in our nerve-endings. And if we take on a lot of meaning all the time — and when that meaning becomes so integrated and aligned with who you are that the meaning then becomes true responsibility — I think we actually live life. Which is the only thing that I can sense in my being that is so far beyond words — the beautiful burden, a taste of the spiritual infinity.

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