Monk for the Revolution



I have a knack for choosing jobs that completely consume my life.  I’m not talking about the careers rather than the high school and college jobs (pizza-maker, factory racker/packer, video rental store clerk, etc.).  I’m on my fourth career now, and for the first time emerging from my monastic existence trying to change the world.

I came out of social work school as a community organizer and took on the direction of shelter/human services for asylum seekers.  The organization for which I work was an offshoot of the Sanctuary Movement, and I threw myself into helping refugees from around the world acculturate and prepare for resettlement.  Since asylum seekers needed activities and a schedule to fill their days, and connection to local culture, I built and strengthened ties between the shelter and religious, social service, and creative institutions in our progressive community.  I lived near the shelter, and was on call 24/7, even when I wasn’t officially on call.  Residents would call me instead of calling the pager.  (Yup.  It was that long ago.)  I reached a point in which I had to carefully plan forays into the suburbs to see movies or visit with friends, because I’d often get interrupted mid-movie and have to return to the shelter.

While working that job, a friend first labeled me a monk for the revolution.  He was one, too, as the national organizer for a socialist, feminist, lots of other –ists member organization in our city.  I’m female, and not particularly Marxist, but let’s just use both of those terms… monk instead of nun, revolution instead of mission.  He clued me into the fact that I had given up my social life, my hobbies, and the pursuit of my own development as a human being to serve the asylum seekers.  It was as if I’d taken monastic vows and lived an ascetic life for them.

I realized at length that the leadership of the shelter fostered dependency among the residents.  They mandated that I do for the residents instead of teaching them how to do for themselves.  As I complied with their expectations, former residents would return to the house (already resettled and holding down jobs) for very simple, but time consuming requests for support that kept me from handling essential duties for the 50 residents in the house who still didn’t have documents, jobs, or other means of support.  By supporting the messianic complex of the organizational leadership, I undermined the resiliency the asylum seekers showed escaping from persecution and I extinguished the behaviors that would help them acculturate effectively.  As a monk for the revolution, difficulty at work was difficulty in my whole life.  I had nothing to balance these challenges.

I resolved to leave that job, because I felt overwhelmed with this catch-22 of holding back the people I desperately wanted to help.  The only way to leave the organization, which I tied to dozens of other neighborhood and city entities, was to leave the city altogether.  I packed up my belongings and moved cross-country to Texas to do public health work along the U.S.-Mexico border.

I traded one revolution for another when I moved to Texas.  While I went to synagogue, watched movies, and watched birds, my life revolved around reproductive health, public health insurance, diabetes, and the environmental threats to public health for farmworkers and residents in the colonias (unofficial settlements) along the border.  There were fewer cultural and social diversions there than in my Midwestern city, but I did great work.  After a few years of public health work, I saw the writing on the wall.  This was in the tail end of the George W. Bush administration, and he had effectively (if slowly) dismantled public health initiatives and their funding streams.  It was time for another move.

I downsized and packed my car for a move to the Big Apple.  After six weeks of training, I joined the ranks of the NYC Teaching Fellows.  This was yet another revolution… to bridge the achievement gap and hold NYC students to high standards.  From 7:00am to 11:00pm, I worked at this for 7 years, constantly reminded that students, parents, administrators, and The System didn’t give a rat’s patoot about the achievement gap and were fine with low expectations.  Was I really going to make little Johnny fail the year just because of Spanish (which is to say political science in Spanish with grammar support and vocabulary with Latin roots so little Johnny could kick toosh on the SATs)?  Silly monk.  Throughout those 7 years, I tried to balance work with life… without result.  I married and divorced.  I crocheted… but only in the summer with sweaty hands.  I didn’t write.  I squeezed a little tango in my schedule, but had to stop when the school year demanded my full attention.

My latest career transition – back to the non-profit world – came about a year and a half ago.  I took on direction of a mission-based program and immediately immersed myself in it until I noticed that those around me in the office had hobbies and talked about what they did outside of work.  I started to follow suit.  I danced tango (even performance tango).  I crocheted cooler and cooler stuff.  I started my blog.  I wrote a book (still not quite ready for publishing).  I ran around the city with couchsurfers.  My job is not the best job on earth.  It’s not the one I covet (working at a reputable refugee organization), but it is my best job so far.

While my current job is not perfect, it allowed me to renounce my monastic vows and carry on a balanced life.  If I have a hard day at work, my hard day stays at work.  I have enough outside interests to buoy my spirits and sustain me through rough patches.  This balance will prevent burnout and will sustain me through the more careful construction of my future professional development.  Perhaps the best job for me is not the job that has the biggest impact on the world, but rather the job that allows me to be fully engage in it.

This post is a response to the Daily Post prompt at: 


7 thoughts on “Monk for the Revolution

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