Sunday, May 4, 2008

Before You Save The World, Clean Your Closet!

If you haven't yet read Thomas Friedman's op-ed "Who Will Tell the People?" in today's NY Times, you should.  It has been a while since an article regarding national affairs has resonated with me on a personal level.  Friedman eloquently weaves together what were once my mere disjointed thoughts.  

Friedman's main argument is that Americans- although long tired of campaigns and a President starting wars and telling Americans to "go shopping" in times of fiscal and national crisis-  do indeed want to partake in nation-building.  However, we want to start our nation-building right here at home, and not in Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan.  This is because we feel like our nation is falling apart.  Many of his points got me thinking about the extent to which my life is a product of the times, closely intertwined with world events. 

First, reading this article, my head started spinning thinking about all the ways that Americans have made important, long-term, structural changes in their lives.  The first and foremost that comes to mind is the "Green Revolution," promoting hybrid vehicles, walking or biking, and partaking in other fuel-saving activities. These are the kinds of changes that Bush should have employed, and are the types of  take-it-into-your-own-hands, honest, long-term changes that a thoughtful leader like Obama inspires.  I have to admit that I felt proud of my fellow Americans while reading this article at an urban sidewalk cafe, watching passers-by carrying reusable shopping bags, walking rather than driving, and generally making themselves aware of the much needed shift from oil to more viable resources.  We are indeed taking matters into our own hands.  

My thoughts naturally turned inward, as I contemplated how the world events of late have shaped a very important period in my life.  Less than three years ago I started law school, and will graduate into the worst economy during my twenty-sevens years on this earth.  I started my program head strong, self-assured, and planned to continue working in international trade or business.  Latin America was my passion, and I wanted to continue to partake in the economic revolution of our poor neighbor.  But for all the reasons that law school makes one question their confidence and abilities plus the less-than-stellar shape of the country, I began to question myself.  

I no longer felt I wanted to save Latin America or the world.  Instead, I became fixated on my immediate surroundings.  I soon began volunteering as a Sunday school teacher at my local church, teaching thirteen- and fourteen-year-old first-generation Latinos.  I found the work extremely rewarding, and sought ways to continue reaching out to inner city students, eventually teaching legal rights classes to homeless teens, and working with Street law, a non-profit that teaches law, democracy and human rights to students.  I fell in love with my Education Law course, because I learned how think in terms of making structural changes to education systems.  I also stopped paying attention to international headlines, and barely flinched when learning of the latest fatalities in Iraq, or the fact that a former cocalero became President of Bolivia.  

I do however, remember crying when my roommate's bicycle-- which I had borrowed for the day-- was stolen from its locked-up location outside the law firm where I was working that summer.  This was just a few months after my car had been stolen, and only a few days after someone stole my vaccuum cleaner from the vestibule of the house where I was renting a room-- neither for which I had shed a tear.  But I cried and cried about having to replace a borrowed bike, tears spilling down my red face as I sat across from my boyfriend at a local coffee shop.  "What am I going to do?" I asked.  "How am I going to come up with the cash to pay for this bike?" But the problem went much deeper.  The problem, I confessed, was that I had gotten ahead of myself in life. I was working, volunteering for other causes, and taking out tens of thousands of loan dollars for a legal education, was mired in debt-- and I felt that I had absolutely no grounding.  I realized that if something as small as a $200 setback could send me into such a state, I had to be doing something wrong.  I realized that I needed to clean out my proverbial closet.  

So I did.  I spent the next year getting my finances in order, moved to a safer location with less crime and higher security, and trying to gain more legal experiences in order to figure out whether I had chosen the right profession.  This past year, I made yet another move and cut my expenses nearly in half, earned back my good credit score (and the ability to sign for the last of my law school loans), and dramatically improved my grades by focusing solely on law school.  I recently passed my first standardized test for the bar exam-- the professional responsibility portion-- and now I will take my last school exam in two days,  graduate with my class on May 23rd, and sit for the Bar Exam in July.   Just two years ago, these all seemed like utter impossibilities. 

And now, as I head into the world with a law degree- despite not yet having secured a job-I feel confident, happy, and ready to answer whatever may be my call to action.  I am happy I chose the path I did, and think I will love practicing law. I do not see myself saving the world (at least, not yet), but rather, continuing to acquire skills and confidence to put to use whenever I do get that call.  That probably means continuing to focus on myself, working hard, and earning money to buy financial freedom.  The "American Dream"-- the six-figure job, the wedding, picket fence, and 2.5-- all seem secondary, just pieces of a bigger puzzle that will fall into place on their own terms.  For now, there's still a lot of work to do on myself, and then a lot of work to do for my community, city, and one day perhaps, my country.  But I never would have been so open and happy had I not set to the task of internal cleaning. 

One small anecdote seems like a fitting analogy: a good friend recently told me that he felt like he had to dedicate himself to personal and career goals before he was ready to dedicate 100% of himself to a relationship.  He had lost his love over this realization, but is now open and prepared for whatever his future has in store. Because after all, you can't fully dedicate yourself to anyone or anything until you understand the extent of your capabilities and your place in the world. To me, this is what cleaning my closet has been about: working on myself before "saving the world." So why shouldn't America's "nation building" adhere to this same philosophy? We are getting ahead of ourselves as individuals, following suit to a government borrowing more than it can pay back from neighbors like China and Singapore-- just like when I borrowed that bike.  I fear that if this trend continues, we are going to fall apart as a nation, and the clean-up won't be solved with some tears and re-organizing. This is why we need a leader, as Friedman suggests, that is going to be more than what Hillary deems as "tough" enough to stand up to the Republicans.  This is why we need a leader that will inspire us to take matters into our hands and clean the closets here first.