Wednesday, March 28, 2007

proxy voting

I've spent my entire adult life working for NGO's. Three years with juvenile offenders in a group home setting, two years in domestic violence. Ten years in homelessness. I chose this path; blood and guts has always drawn me, and in the drawing, there are sacrifices. Working more holidays than I can remember, zero money for retirement, living slightly more than paycheck to paycheck. The money has never really been an issue. We rent, our cars are each a decade old. We live simply and never have to worry about being able to buy food. My footprint is still larger than most.

But after all those years and thousands upon thousands of people nothing is getting better. Homelessness grows every year. It's getting worse. It's the lack of impact that troubles me, the terrifying notion that this has all been for nothing.

I am not sure how much longer I can do this. For years my entire identity was wrapped up in my work, was defined by it. With J and M things have changed. I am entirely grateful for that, to have something besides this to call my own, my home, my reason.

But a girl's gotta eat. And while I may be a hard worker, it's always been driven by passion. I cannot work to simply earn. I see the value in that, but I am too stubborn and too childish to do it. I can't bring myself to find a job. I've got to find a cause. Otherwise, I'll be fired in a week. I'd much rather be in Goa, Chile, Kenya. I'd be fired in a week.

So I sit here heartbroken. I'll be turning 37 in less than a month and I've spent my adult life working for a cause that is going nowhere. I am whining, a pathetic middle class angst, yes. I know. I know. But I have nowhere else to do this, nowhere else I can actually allow myself the space to heave. It's my blog, I'll write what I want.

Please, please, don't read this and want to make me feel better. You make me feel better all the time by all the support and community you offer. I don't need to feel better about this. I need to figure out what the hell to do. And it's okay to be heartbroken for a while.

If you finish a really big project and still get a D, does that mean the effort was for not? Or does it mean the project is incomplete? I don't really have those answers, either.

And there is an element of abandonment. Of giving up. Of knowing that just because I turn my face it doesn't mean it goes away. So that's worse, isn't it? Worse to give up before it's done. But it won't ever be done, will it? Perhaps it's the death of a long held ideal I am mourning, a belief that the world can actually be changed.

J has a theory that the government is thrilled by NGOs because people who are passionate about social issues work for them and spend their years spinning their wheels, and our attention and efforts go to the symptoms rather than the heart of the problems. We are safely tucked away whittling the years trying to plug all the leaks. But there are always new ones. And we are too busy with our fingers and toes in the other holes to notice, and before we know it the water has risen. And so we scramble to plug the new holes, never once thinking about how to stop the water on the other side.

And eventually everyone drowns. That's simple physics, right? Water will expand to the space it is given.

In the spirit of good blogging everywhere, I know I am supposed to end this post with an upbeat, I'll be fine! Really, just prattling on about nothing! Perhaps, I am. But who knows. So instead I'll leave you with this.

I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle! - Alice in Wonderland


Bob said...

Do you do your job to effect change or to help people? Which is primary for you? I would guess that it is the former. After all, people are helped the most when changes come about that permanently satisfy their needs. If your reason for being is the fight - then maybe you need to step away and find another cause. One that you feel you can have an effect on. I don't know diddly about homelessness, or really about your job and its role in relieving homelessness, so I can't answer that for you.

However, if your reason for being is to help people, I can't help but feeling that you doing what you do every day has a huge effect. You doing what you do helps people every hour of every day. Again, I can't prove that, but I am confident in saying so. Do the "It's a Wonderful Life" test. If you weren't there doing your job would the homeless people you interact with be worse off? I believe they would.

But is that enough for you? I don't know. I don't know if I have articulated this well, but it boils down to is: what are your goals? You help people every day. You seem to think that you aren't making a difference in the homeless problem we as a nation have. How do you really know that? Things getting worse overall doesn't mean you aren't having an effect. It could be that things would be getting worse much faster if you weren't there doing what you do.

I understand you are coming to a crossroads. You can either derive satisfaction in knowing you are doing your best and that it is having an immediate, positive affect on those around you or you can decide that your talents would have a greater effect somewhere else.

I don't know if anything I've said helps - or even makes any sense - I offer it as my viewpoint from afar.

As for J's assertion about the government's view on NGO's - my opinion is our current government's philosophy is that it isn't the government's job to redistribute wealth or to provide social services. It's job is to provide an entrepreneurial environment where people (the rich in my slanted opinion) can gain wealth which they can then use to help others - or not - as they see fit. NGOs are there as privately supported agencies to do this income redistribution.

I hope you find a solution to your problem soon or can at least find some peace within yourself for the way things are.

Anonymous said...

You're supposed to end on an upbeat? I missed all that formula stuff. (I was probably skipping blogger 101, washing down a joint with Jack.)

I was thinking about people who make good money. The type of work that gets rewarded monetarily. If you are inclined to give away a lot (do good with your money rather than increase your own comforts and conveniences), or try to live simply to reduce waste, must you be disinclined toward the jobs that pay? Are the accoutrements of such employment literally "trappings?" Would I want to work so hard at a job (for money) if I was not interested in things that money could buy for me?

If I were in a situation like yours, I think leaving, making a change, would feel like "survivor guilt."

This is only a comment and I can't sum up my thoughts.

Thailand Gal said...

Well, you already know what a cynic I am about government. It's an oligarchy.

I don't think this is a project you will ever be able to view as one with a beginning, a middle and an end. It will go on long after you are in Belize, in another job or dead. These manifestations of a sick society (homelessness, addiction, violence, the huge primal hole in the middle of most people's souls...) isn't something you can solve. You're one individual, not God. Maybe that's your lesson in this.

There's value in every single effort to make it better. That is where you find the meaning, knowing you do what you can, that you affect lives in a one-on-one manner and that you gave it in an authentic way.

I'm not trying to blow sunshine up your butt. I respect you far too much for that and already know you are too intelligent for that crap. At the same time, I think it's worthwhile to look at the things that are right in what you do, the lives you've touched. Life itself isn't a grand epic. It's a series of snapshots. You are up against a monolith here. That's just reality, like it or not. It's not like this everywhere. Knowing the value of your efforts won't stop you from being burned out but after you've left this situation for another, it will keep you from feeling you wasted your time and energy.

Personally? I wish you would do something internationally, something of your own volition, something that doesn't require you to sell your soul to the propaganda machine.

So the issue becomes one of finding that outlet.. and in the absence of finding it, creating it.

While you're doing all that, take a few years off and teach English in Thailand. :)

Just a few thoughts on a windy Wednesday morning.



jen said...

Bob, thanks. I think for a long time it was to help people, as idealistic as that sounds. But as I grew I realized the passion was to effect social change - to attack the problem rather than help the symptoms of the problem. And after the last several years, it's become clearer and clearer how hard that is. I am not discounting the individual easing of suffering, but it goes back to stopping it at the root. thank you for what you wrote.

De, it's a circle game, isn't it?

Chani - international. yes. trying and not succeeding. but i think the same frustrations apply there, too. root vs symptoms.

liv said...

It is tiring to try and try. I did PR for American Red Cross Biomedical for a while and the blood supply stayed critical. It was so painful knowing that there were/are people dying and still few fellow human beings would allow their veins to be tapped of one measly pint. And then the organization's bureaucracy, CGMP, FDA training, blah-be-blah. I just never felt effective.

Thailand Gal said...

Chani - international. yes. trying and not succeeding. but i think the same frustrations apply there, too. root vs symptoms.

What do you consider to be the root? Maybe that's where your answer is. Do you honestly believe you can do something to pull that root out of the ground and plant something new?

I'll be thinking good thoughts for you to find something international, something that isn't dependent on riding the coattails of US hegemony.



mamatulip said...

I've just caught up on your posts, as well as the report you linked to a few days ago, and my head is so full and there are so many thoughts going through it that I honestly don't know what to say without sounding really stupid. I can see why you are feeling the way you feel now and I hope that, in some way, you can work it out so that you feel fulfilled, and feel like you are helping progress be made.

Andrea said...


I feel that way every day--that all of the structures of my daily work exist to prevent me from making meaningful change. It is frustrating and disheartening and depressing and, yes, I burn out sometimes. It's hard to grasp on to those moments when I could see a difference I was making, and they are always small. And I'm LUCKY--I have one of those nice government jobs that pays ok and has benefits and a retirement plan. And I too have always wanted to be getting at the root causes--the only problem is the thousands of very wealthy and powerful people down there in the ground, holding on to those roots with both hands, refusing to let them be pulled. Someday the tree's going to get chopped down, though, because we just can't stay on this path we're on as a society. The whole thing is going to burn out.

But I am going to suggest that you need to follow your joy. The need to make effective social change is too deep in you to be found in any endeavour that doesn't produce good somewhere, so wherever you end up will be a good place for the rest of us. But it has to be good for YOU, too.

kristen said...

'Perhaps it's the death of a long held ideal I am mourning, a belief that the world can actually be changed.'
Perhaps it is this or perhaps, you're ready for a change because you've changed. It really can be as simple as that. I wouldn't call it abandonment either. Passions change and like you, I couldn't work at 'just a job'. I've had those jobs and I've been fired or sat in a bathroom stall sobbing. It's never an easy process to change one's calling, especially when you've identified so much of your adult self with that career and passion. It took me the better part of a year to decide what to do with myself once I decided I had no passion for my work, a year of angst and doubts but all worth it in the end.

I love Chani's take on all this, amen sister.

jen said...

Andrea, reading your comment makes me want to hop the fence and sit on your porch and figure out what that is.

There is joy in that. I know what you mean.

NotSoSage said...

Andrea's comments from both this post and the last echo exactly what I have been thinking about in response to our exchanges yesterday.

She is wise. Listen to her. Hop the fence and sit on her porch and if you invite me over for a cold one (I'm just a hop, skip and a jump away), I'd love to join you.

...and find some time to swim in the waves every now and then.


QT said...

There is so much wisdom on these here pages. I tend to agree with most of it - kiki is right, if your spirit is deadened for whatever reasons - burn out, personal change - you need to do whatever it takes to get that back.

And Chani is right - you are late to this fight that has gone on for hundreds of years, the haves and have nots. And it will continue long after all of us are gone.

What about using your passion and voice to appeal directly to the decision makers through an organization like California Housing Advocates?

Or what about moving to a whole different country and opening a cafe and letting the people who are truly in need, trade their labor for food?

Both accomplish the same thing in my eyes, just in different ways.I just use those as examples of how we determine the level at which we effect change in the world. It does not have to be the job we go to for 8 hours a day. Those 8 hours could be used to leverage something far more grand.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to make your own life better. Even tho you may be surrounded by those who, due to mental illness or addiction cannot, doesn't make you a bad person because you CAN.

I feel for you, I wish I could sit down with you after work with a bottle of wine and hash it all out, a few hours at a time. I guess this blog will have to suffice, my friend.

ECR said...

I have no words of wisdom for you, but I just wanted to reinforce your own wise words in the form of "it's okay to be heartbroken for awhile."

P.S. I have your interview questions ready! Thanks for playing. I really enjoyed trying to figure out questions that will hopefully elicit some interesting facts and ideas. If you'd like, you can email me at binker at and I'll reply with the questions, or, if you'd prefer, I can leave them here in a comment.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry sweetie but I don't think you can change the whole world, not by yourself. All you can do is your best, in your own little corner. That's all any of us can do. I sound old and bitter don't I? Not bitter, just wise.
Sending you a hug. If you need a break come visit Edmonton and freeze your ass off.

Susanne said...

Okay. I didn't know what to write so I decided to pull a card for you (yes, I'm one of those people). I quote (and the card I got is "discontent" by the way and I didn't cheat):

"Your Muses are present, and they call on you now to embrace your creative discontent and undertake new projects. Their message: "See your frustration as a longing to learn more, expand more, dare more and create more.""

Very helpful, isn't it. I have the feeling that whatever you do this discontent is a good thing. It'll help you gain clarity and perspective. Even if you feel heartbroken right now.


jen said...

susanne. i love it. thank you.

QT - yes. i know. me too.

scribbit said...

My husband worked for the PDs office here for a while and it was tough. Sifting through a lot of sad pictures and evidence and bad parts of humanity.

Beck said...

I have no words to help you or comfort you through this. I do think that you've done good for people, and that there's no way to know how much immeasureable good you've done, not in this life.

Lucia said...

I've worked in NGOs all my life too. Sometimes non-profit means non-profit. I hear you about the international stuff and really wish I could help you find a door. But truth is, you can work your butt off internationally too and there's still poverty, and hunger, and all sorts of awful stuff there too.

Oh, The Joys said...

You do it because you are called to do it -- you can't help it.

You do it for that person you saw working at the deli -- the former client.

You do it for the baby in the box.

You do it for you, for J, for M, for me.

You don't HAVE to do it. You know this.

Momish said...

Oh, jen, I know that feeling. I remember it all too well when I was working with the mentally ill. It all seemed in vain way too often. But, that is only when you take on the big picture, the forest. If you look at the individual trees, you do notice they grow, they bloom and they expand beautifully.

I guess it doesn't help much coming from me, though. I quit in the end and sold my soul to corporate America for more money and weekends off. I'll shut up now.

Hope you get through this slump sooner than not.

Tabba said...

I promise I will not attempt to make you feel better. I promise that I'll listen....I promise I'll let you work through this in the manner that you need. Let me just leave you with this:

Constant grinding can turn an iron rod into a needle.

Does that about sum it all up? Because I hear it in your voice. And I just want to hug you, drink a bottle of wine and listen.

slouching mom said...

Jen: Please remember that you have many, many years left in your life. If you need to take a break now, so be it. It's not the end of the world. During your break you will discover exactly what it is you should do next. There is time. And I'll bet that you will go back eventually to the helping professions, but you can help in such myriad ways. You WILL figure this out. No guilt, OK?

Em said...

I just want to let you know that I am here - listening quietly and reflecting on your words.

Mad Hatter said...

Jen. One of the best plays I ever saw was by an independent playwright. His two main characters were brothers, one mentally ill and one his caregiver. During the play, these brothers go off the deep end. They become so distraught with the world they are forced to live in but cannot change that they hatch a scheme to finally open the eyes of the beaurocrats. They begin kidnapping homeless people, video-taping their life stories, then drowning them (weighted in sacks with rocks) in Toronto's Don River. Their logic is that if they repeat this act enough, the river will flood and the waters will rise up to the doors of the city hall. The politicians will have no choice but to take notice.

The name of the play was "Eureka" and the metaphor was, of course, Archimedes notion of the displacement of water.

The truth is we kill ourselves and others to effect real change. Burn out is inevitable. Think about this: your career is long. Would a break hurt? I know that you will come back to the work you love. It is your passion. My hope is that you do indeed find that other job in that other place and that you can answer the call. My hopes for you are great. My heart is raw with this hope.

flutter said...

You do it because you know that success is not a quantifiable entity.
You do it because every little one who crosses your path is M. You do it because you know, in some small way, your touch in someone's path makes a difference.

alejna said...

I always have trouble leaving comments on your blog because so many have so much to say. The words don't always come easily for me. But I want you to know that I am thinking of you, and am sad along with you over this burnout you feel. (See? No cheering up from me!)

No matter what you decide to do about your job, you will still be able to effect change. You write with such power, and your experiences allow you to speak out with both compassion and authority. I hope that you will continue to use this force.

Jenny said...

Reading about your passion for helping the homeless put me to action. I haven't done a lot but I have done some and I'll continue to. Not only that but you've inspired me to teach my child to care about the homeless in spite of the fact that (don't hate me) I really didn't so much before. Have you made a difference? You have in my life...and in my childs...and probably in hers. Every river starts as a trickle.

Mrs. Chicky said...

I agree with J's theory unfortunately. It has to be troubling that if all the money spent on the war was spent on the homelessness issue, at least one conflict would be solved.

kgirl said...

I will not try to convince you not to give up or try to make you feel better. I wonder (along with thanking and admiring) how those who work in your sector do it. I wonder all the time.
My sister is finishing school right now to be a crisis counselor for women and children, and I'm afraid that politics and red tape are already dullening her idealism. She now says that she is turning her efforts to becoming a doula, and eventually a midwife, so that at the end of the day she can actually feel like she has helped someone in a tangible way.

I don't really blame her.

Maybe there is a path for you to take so that you can still help, but not feel helpless.

Julie Pippert said...

Oh boy...I know this feeling. It's what caused me to quit the high-paying tech world and move into a field where I felt I was adding something of value (the reverse of one of your points?).

I will have to think of what to add beyond: I understand this angst very well and a hug to you for it.

I tell you what. I have a gaia post queued up in my blog (along with a dozen others). It's a rough draft. But I'll do it sooner rather than later.

I think for you there is no wall of naivete between you and the real issues.

The campaigns of "End Childhood Hunger" and "End Homelessness" sound great.

But is that a reasonable goal?

For people with the wall, maybe they think so. Donate some old clothes here, throw a little money at it there, or better yet, blame the people for their own plight and say they deserve no help at all. Only help the worthy!

But you don't have the wall.

You have done your tours of duty. Does it need to be a lifetime for you to make it worthwhile---to be something you can call a calling versus something you just did for a while? Is that important---that distinction---for you?

I think J is on to something.

And I was unaware one had to end a post happily. I did not take the Blogger 101 class.

TBH, if I may be so forward, it does not worry me to see you have an existential crisis (although I feel for you completely). It would worry me if you did not.

"The unexamined life is not worth living."

--Socrates, in Plato, Dialogues, Apology

I know you'll find the right answer because you are questioning, and I'm sure you have good people around you who know you and care much who can provide good input.

I wish it was me, but...

Hang in there.

Shelly Kneupper Tucker said...

Yes, you are disappointed, but you will revive from it. Two quotes from Thomas Edison:
Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless.

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.

Thanks for making us think.

Redneck Mommy said...

I changed in the blink of an eye.

The moment I walked out the hospital's emergency doors my entire focus, beliefs and personality shifted.

And I sit here, every day, trying to get a grasp on who I am now, and what it is I still believe in.

What do I want to do with my life?

I hope you find your answers.

Kyla said...

I hope you find your answers, jen. You have done/are doing amazing work and I have no doubt whether you continue to stay on this path or move to another, you will still be doing great work.

kim said...

I'm with Jenny. But, I understand the frustration, it is hard waiting for the world to change.

If anyone deserves a middle class whine it is you.

urban-urchin said...

I am not going to comment on the government or the reasons that one would choose the work you do, as many many comments here have been very succicent in this regard. I do understand burnout and all the feelings you have when you talk about working hard on a project and getting a D. I have had the heartache and the feeling of failure when I decided to let a project I had worked on for years and in which I had invested a HUGE portion of my self worth. I was depressed as hell, tired as hell and sad as hell. And you know what? Sometimes I am still sad but I know it was a good decision. I honored my gut feeling and honored my family's needs and it was right.

I also realized that nothing except death is forever, so if I wanted to go back to my project after a break of months, weeks years, I could. So can you.
You are exceptional, if this is what you need to step away from, even for a while, trust me honey- you'll eat. You will. You do what you need to do for you and J and M.

Cristi said...

"Ending poverty in NYC" is the goal of the Robinhood Foundation. I sort of snickered at that when I heard it, but ya gotta give it to them and YOU- tackling such big issues and breaking it down one individual at a time takes a lot of gumption.

I'm reminded of the lesson I taught today: Students had to weigh the pros and cons of using paper or plastic products then make an informed decision. One kid finally said, "It's not fair. Both are bad options."

So, we find our own way...

Jocelyn said...

I don't know if you'll see this comment, as it's on an "old" post, but I want to compliment you on being such a cool, self-reflective person. I had an inkling I liked you, but this paragraph did it for me:

"Please, please, don't read this and want to make me feel better. You make me feel better all the time by all the support and community you offer. I don't need to feel better about this. I need to figure out what the hell to do. And it's okay to be heartbroken for a while."

Thank you for saying that.

Desitin's Child said...

Here's an idea: WRITE for a living. You have a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience, and - hey, you write well :)
There are grants you can get. You can co-write with other specialists in your field. In addition to the writing, you can lead seminars and do teach-the-teacher workshops. This can be part-time. It can be international. It can be work-at-home (yay Internet!).
It's not easy to be self-employed, but it helps if you have a supportive partner...which you do.

My mom does this kind of work. Let me know if you want to hear more about it.


Mrs. Chicken said...

Jen, you are right. The problem won't ever be solved.

Perhaps Desitin's Child is right - change your tactics, maybe? Share with the world what you share with us here?

A book, perhaps?

As always, you move me. I won't say feel better. I will say good luck in your search for what's next for you.

ewe are here said...

You can only do what you can do. Please don't beat yourself up wondering why you can't do more -- you do so much, you've done so much, and you'll always be looking for ways to do more.

As for upbeat endings... that isn't life. Some days are downers, and that's what your friends and family are for ... to help pick you back up when you feel it's all hopeless.

You'll figure out who you are and where you're going. Hang in there.