Toward Dignity and Beyond

Over the past few months, I’ve heard the word dignity thrown around quite a bit. In most cases, the discussion was about poverty. On one hand, the poor needed to have or show some dignity by working harder, by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” And, on the other, the working poor deserve a livable wage so that they can live with dignity. In fact, because I’m finally in a job that uses and tests my education, I now have a more dignified job.

My response, sometimes vocalized, was one of confusion. Is being poor or working a job that doesn’t require a degree or a particular expertise, exclusive of dignity? According to the aforementioned paradigm, yes.

In both instances, a lack of money and capital equates to a lack of dignity. Consciously, subconsciously, and culturally, this language suggests that our bank accounts are intimately linked with how much honor and respect we are given and with which we view ourselves. Yes, living comfortably on the salary of a single, 40-hour-a-week job is a luxury everyone should be afforded, but not living such an existence doesn’t necessarily make people feel less worthy of respect. I hear stories about a middle-class that once existed in this country, a middle-class that prided itself in working hard and earning a living. As those people continue to tumble down the tax brackets, now it appears that they had only dignity in numbers of the populist kind.

It’s unfortunate (though hardly surprising) that something as subjective, personal, and unique as respect has been usurped by a symbolic practice. And until money ceases to be the token for succeeding at life, I don’t see this changing anytime soon. If even the deeply altruistic believe dignity is bestowed with cash, then even the good guys are cogs in a system that must, at the very least, be re-calibrated. Honestly, we’re all just rats the maze. But seeing the dignity in others should have nothing to do with their bank accounts. Unless, you truly believe a person can be paid their worth.

thanks but no

Ages ago, I received my first rejection letter for the book. It read exactly as follows: thanks but no

No capitalization. No punctuation. It was demoralizing. Not because it was a rejection, this I had expected, but because it was so curt. I had spent the better part of three months crafting my query letter and an additional two to three hours tailoring it to this particular agency. And just like that: thanks but no.

Now, after what feels like an eternity of filling out online applications, sending emails, submitting my résumé, making phone calls and spending substantial amounts of time crafting a cover letter for each and every submission and getting absolutely nothing in response, I can honestly say I’ll take a ‘thanks but no’ any day. It is, at the very least, an acknowledgement of my efforts.

Whenever I engage news items meant to put a face to the un(der)employed, I always come away feeling as though the writer has stopped just short of the full experience. The lack of health care, the inability to pay for the basics–let alone any unforeseen and always costly expenses–and the emotional stress that this existential crisis creates is expounded upon in great detail. In a capitalistic society, I wouldn’t expect such articles to be about anything other than a lack of fiscal productivity and its effects on self-esteem. But, there’s another experience that exacerbates the more immediate, aforementioned circumstances: a constant barrage of rejection.

The process of finding a job in a depressed market is proving to be an emotional expedition in its own right. Along the way you shed dreams of living in a particular area. You dismiss illusions of finding a job you’ll actually enjoy. You leave the world you’ve worked hard to break into for the one you’ve always known and the societal rejections and dismissals that come with being un(der)employed. And, as if digesting your new reality isn’t enough, you must take up the active pursuit of rejection inherent in finding a job.

I feel the anguish of imminent rejection most intensely when I’m crafting my cover letters. Like the query letter, a cover letter is the first impression one makes in a situation where, in this economy (the cliché of the decade), the statistical probability of rejection is practically guaranteed. Both letters are appeals to higher powers. Please hire me. Please publish me. Please assess me and find me worthy of joining your institution based solely on this three-hundred word document extolling the virtues you want to hear about most, all so that I may live the life of a productive human being.

Of course I understand the function and necessity of the résumé and cover letter, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s when I’m working on these documents that the entire process of being hired feels unfairly arbitrary. The more I scrutinize a letter, the more it seems ridiculous to me that a couple of sheets of paper determine whether I make it into the next round of considerations. Is anyone ever able to distill their education, experience, and personality into a one page letter that vaguely resembles a fair and accurate summation whilst focusing on telling some anonymous someone what they want to hear? And if I’m going to put the time and thought into doing so, can’t it be common courtesy to acknowledge what I’m putting down, even if you aren’t picking it up?

I try my best not to take the rejection personally. The fact that the economy is in such bad shape eases my pain a little. When I do receive rejection letters in the mail–a rare occurrence–I’m actually grateful someone somewhere took the time to notify me. Mostly, though, I’m just used to it. I try to be systematic about the job search and application process. At the first signs of frustration and depression I ease up and regroup. If that means it takes me longer to find a job, so be it. Because, when it comes to letting this entire process run me into the ground, I’ve adopted a little philosophy I like to call: thanks but no.

The Next Room Over

When I was in high school, aged sixteen or seventeen, I decided I was an intellectual. I wasn’t exactly sure what the term ‘intellectual’ meant but it sounded appealing. It sounded right. It was one of the few labels that had been applied to me on several occasions for which I had no objection, like ‘old soul’ and ‘sharp.’ I was lucid enough at sixteen or seventeen to recognize that I was not yet fully an intellectual, it was something I would have to grow into, to become; it was a decorated uniform I needed to earn.

Still, I tried to imagine what life as an intellectual would be like. But, as was the case anytime I tried to imagine myself or my life at some point in the future, I saw nothing more than hazy tableaux vivants that took their cues from popular culture, fantasy, and my then nascent hobbies and interests.

What I did see, I liked. I liked the visions of my tiny office being overtaken by books that multiplied in number every time I left the room. I saw myself frequenting cafes, sometimes alone, sometimes in a small group: book in hand, ready to be anointed with fresh ink via praise, criticisms, thoughts and questions. I imagined conversations over long dinners that had an ebb and flow of the serious and the mundane. I imagined a group of people from a distance, myself included, gathered around a large table. Their faces illuminated by candle light, and their voices and laughter like an old record playing in the next room over.

That was, more or less, my life in my early and mid-twenties. As an undergraduate I found a small circle of friends (fellow students and professors) and studied abroad in France. Immediately after college I found work and a circle of friends with whom I was able to ‘sow my oats,’ (for better and worse), and then I started graduate school. I lived in a too small, two room basement apartment. My goodwill bookshelves quickly became inadequate for my growing collection of texts. Occasionally, not often, I’d meet friends at a cafe or bar for a drink and conversation. And always, my dinners with friends were long and the ebb and flow of conversation, gentle and inspiring, was mundane and serious. Flowers, wine glasses, and sometimes candles held space for us. Us, as in: including me.

For a short time my life was as I had imagined it would be, over a decade or so ago. What I couldn’t/didn’t imagine was that I could do everything right: go to college and get a degree, get another degree and then…the economy goes to hell and I learn that doing everything right was never enough. I certainly never imagined I’d be nearing thirty whilst underemployed and living with my parents in an area that feels a world away from any place that appreciates the things I love. I work part-time in retail. My second part-time job is finding a full-time job. I have my books and one close friend, but my two part-time jobs and a strong sense of isolation often leave me too emotionally exhausted and sad to enjoy them.

There’s always hope. When I think about who I’ve been, who I’m becoming, and who I’ll be, I remind myself that this time in my life, the present-this difficult time, is just as important as any other. When I’m feeling particularly depressed and hopeless, I convince myself that the darkness alone makes this chapter in life more important and necessary than any other.

As things stand, it is hard to interpret what I’m hearing in the next room over. But, I take solace in the fact that I know what I want to find there. Now, more than ever, I am grateful for the achievements of my past. It is the past that now informs the visions of my future. It is my past that sustains the echoes of intent I send forth.