A Path With Heart

(Yes, I stole the title)

What do you want to be when you grow up? We have all heard that question, some of us far more often than others. When I was younger, the answer was simple- become a lawyer and hold elective office. Over time, that changed as I moved from job to job and grad to school to law school to grad school, etc. But the overriding goal was to have an impact on the world, to improve the lot of others. Over the years, I found many ways to affect change in the world- served on the school committee, crafted policy, conducted research- but only one position truly held my interest and fueled my passion. My work with suicidal children, and then with children who had emotional and behavioral disorders, fulfilled me in ways that are at once enormous yet intangible.

After being laid off from the Donahue Institute I thought of many different paths that I could choose. I had been focusing on completing a PhD in health care policy. It would certainly have provided the intellectual challenge that I find so rewarding and necessary. But the more I really sat with my ideas and listened deeply to my soul I realized that it was not the right path. My work in politics and policy have provided me with some opportunities to make change, but they have given me many more moments of frustration (and boredom). For much of that time, I allayed my concerns by buying into the myth that I was making change on a macro level, and therefore improving so many more people’s lives.

But the sad reality is that politics and policy is not only far removed from actually helping others, but itself has been so overtaken by money and powerful interests that what was once a small glimmer of hope for making societal change is now nothing more than a fantasy. Our politics is beyond broken. Our government is captive to monied interests, whose scores of lobbyists and campaign contributions serve to tilt the playing field even more in their favor. I look back and realize that much of my work in the field was a mere parlor game.

While many people share these views about our broken political system, so few are willing to work to make change. And those same powerful interests do their best to ensure that there will always be not merely atomization of reformers, but very real wedges between groups. I hesitate to call the situation hopeless, as that word is not a normal part of my vocabulary.

But what we do need is a change of consciousness. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Occupy Movement, they are getting to the heart of the matter in many ways. We need to rethink our values, reexamine what we hold dear, strengthen relationships among people, empower ourselves and others, focus on creating (rather than destroying) communities and so much more.

Which leads me back to the original question- what do you want to be when you grow up? Well, I’ve grown up and realize that I need to be on a path with heart. Whether that means becoming a social worker or a minister is still to be determined. Each one takes care of souls, albeit in somewhat different ways. But both are committed to social justice, to building community, to empowering individuals and to helping place the focus on people, not profits.

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The Best Present I Ever Got

With the holidays passed it is a good time to reflect not on the presents I received this year, but rather to write about what is, without doubt, the most important gift I ever received. It will probably come as no surprise to the people who know me that this gift came from my parents, with whom I am still incredibly close. This gift is not something tangible, but it is (one would hope) something that all parents would give to their children, along with love- my values.

This year, like the past several, I gave to charity in my parents’ names. As I sat down at my computer to select a charity and to find just the right quote to include in their e-cards, I meditated on why I was doing this and what it means to be engaged with the world around us. What follows is my attempt to capture those thoughts and feelings and something of a description of from where they came.

I was raised in a decidedly non-religious household. My folks seemed to only go to church for weddings and funerals, though I would frequently go to Sunday school and later church with my paternal grandmother. I do not believe that any of my grandparents (other than paternal grandmother) were particularly religious, either. Yet, my parents both grew up in families that we are at least nominally Christian/religious. All that is to say that I am not convinced that the values my parents passed on to me were driven by religious teachings or beliefs, no matter how much they align with what might be called Christian social justice teachings (of a Protestant/Methodist character).

From a pretty young age (probably younger than I can recollect, as I am old), I was taught not only to respect others, but that we had an obligation to others. That meant giving to charity, donating clothes, and volunteering time (especially my dad with youth sports). My family was not wealthy (probably middle that rose to upper middle by my teen years), so this service to others was not rooted in any sense of noblesse oblige. Rather it was a deep and abiding belief in the value of others, regardless of personal characteristics like income, race, or education. I was taught to always think of others and not to be consumed with material things (I still struggle with the latter).

These core values have driven or at least helped to shape every decision I have made as an adult. I entered politics because I wanted to serve others and improve the lot of children in our public education system. I worked in direct care of children, rather than the far more lucrative financial services sector, because so many things are more important than money. (I should note that my ability to work for less than market wages was completely underwritten by my parents’ willingness to subsidize my rent and other expenses.) I went to graduate school for public policy so that I might hone the skills necessary to create a better society, via robust social welfare and educational systems. I’ve worked in public finance for much of the same reasons. And, I now work in program evaluation in STEM education as a way to address dramatic educational achievement gaps. Along the way I have also continued to give to charity, volunteer my time and advocate for policies that would help to ensure a more just society.

As cliche as this might sound- I owe who I am to the values my parents have instilled in me. They taught me to be a compassionate, loving person. And that is the greatest gift anyone could ever receive. I am forever grateful.

Hiatus

As is probably quite obvious, I am on a hiatus for the near future. Between work and training I simply do not have the time to blog right now. Once my commute becomes much shorter (ie, I move back to Boston), the blog will return to its regular schedule. I still may post once in a while, should I find the time. In the interim, you can read all of my glibness and sarcasm on my Twitter feed.

Courage or Cowardice

The suicide of Vic Chesnutt over Christmas affected me not only as a fan of his music, but as someone who has been there before. Fortunately none of my attempts were successful. I owe my life to some very special and amazing people who looked out for me, saw that I got help and were there even when I might have wished they were not.

Suicide is either something very courageous or extremely cowardly. Perhaps it is a little bit of both, no matter how dissonant that may seem.

It takes a great deal of courage to contemplate taking your own life, let alone actually doing it. That is why so many people who suffer from severe depression, or other affective disorders, never get to the point of becoming suicidal. The thought alone is enough to scare many people into getting help if they already haven’t. And for some others it may serve as a reality check, that maybe your life is not that bad after all.

But for those who have the courage to pursue suicide, life itself becomes a living hell. You see, deep inside us all is a drive for self-preservation. Thus, every day becomes a constant battle between your desire to die and your innate will to live. This will is what keeps you from jumping in front of a bus or swallowing a bottle of pills at any given moment. The level of agony and angst caused by this inner struggle is immense and only worsens your mental state.

You see, staying alive for another day is not something you see as worthy of self-congratulation. If anything, it makes you feel cowardly for not having whatever it takes to kill yourself. It is not a way of life I would wish upon my worst enemy.

Eventually, this pain becomes so great that you take the cowardly route of ending your life. Cowardly because you’ve decided not to fight through the pain. And make no mistake about it, there is a choice here.  Taking your life is the ultimate avoidance technique. It’s an easy way out, an escape from reality that is much more permanent than drugs or alcohol.

I know that this might be provocative, but I truly believe that if you have the courage to plan your own death then you have the courage to fight through whatever emotional problems you may have. You will not realize it until you’ve made it through, which is why having a strong support system is crucial to surviving.

People may wonder why I am even willing to share this part of my life in such a public way. There is really only one answer- to help others. If one person is helped by these words, then it is worth all of the potential risks of people knowing about my darkest days. If you or someone you know needs help, leave a message in the comments (I won’t publish it), and I will do my best to put you in touch with the resources you need.

Obligatory Thanksgiving Post

Getting this one in just before Thanksgiving is officially over here on the East Coast. This year, two things in particular stick out as things for which to be thankful. Most importantly, I am thankful to have a President who makes me proud to be an American. Related to that, I am thankful that after years of slouching towards Bizarro World, some within the GOP are finally realizing they have a base problem. I am grateful that people like Conor, Larison, Frum, the guys at the League and other dissident and/or wonky right of center folks are taking it upon themselves to reform the GOP and/or the conservative movement.

From the Archives

This might flesh out a bit more about me than my simple about section and what people can glean from my writings. It’s from my original blog.

… I do not, and have not, hidden the fact that my political career began in the GOP. In fact, all of my paid political jobs have been on Republican campaigns, with the last being in 1998 for a statewide race in Massachusetts.

My journey started with the 1988 Bush campaign, as a campus volunteer. From there I got involved in the Massachusetts GOP and especially the local party, where I served on the Executive Committee. In my first few years I worked on state legislative races as well as local races. I was elected myself at the age of twenty to the school board in my home town. At that time, I was considered to be the Republican bomb thrower in a town government full of Democrats.

Like most young people, I saw the world in absolutist terms. This black and white world view animated me and led me to help found the Students for Life chapter at my college campus. And, it moved me to volunteer for the Buchanan campaign in 1992. I even heckled VP Quayle when he was in Boston with taunts of “how does it feel to be on the ticket with a liberal?”

Somehow I was able to overcome the Buchanan experience and I landed paid positions as a consultant to a Congressional race and later as a field director to a US Senate race, both before I was twenty four years old.

But things changed for me in 1994. I went away to law school (the first time) and made my first close gay friend. Although St. Louis was a small city, it opened my eyes to a much larger world around me. And with that bigger world came all sorts of shades of gray. In the fall of 1994 I even endorsed Ted Kennedy for re-election to the US Senate. Although I was not quite ready to leave the GOP, it seemed as though the time had come to reassess my outlook.

Shortly after January of 1995, as I digested more about the Contract with America and that election’s changes in the make up of the GOP leadership, I realized the time had come to leave the Party. Sure, there was a part of me that wanted to stay and fight the dominance of the South and Midwestern religious conservatives, but it seemed to be a losing battle. The Rockefeller Republicans of the Northeast had seen a waning influence in the GOP for years. The Contract and the Gingrich Revolution merely cemented the status of religious conservatives as the leaders of the modern Republican Party.

At the same time that I left the GOP I had also left St. Louis and law school to return to Massachusetts. Over the next few years I would work with suicidal children, kids with emotional and behavioral disorders and in a public school. These experiences provided me with even more insight into how other people lived. As an upper middle class white kid growing up on Cape Cod, I just did not have those sorts of experiences.

Blah, blah, blah.. then I went to graduate school. Then worked for the Ways and Means Committee of the New York State Assembly. Then back to law school…

So.. where am I today? What made a former solid Republican into a Democrat? And what exactly do I believe?

Well, my discomfort with the Religious Right has always been there. I left the Students for Life chapter over disagreements about contraception and masturbation. Most of the members were staunch Catholics. Because the Church opposed contraception, masturbation and sex education the group did as well. This flew in the face of reason, given that preventing pregnancy was the best means to reduce abortion, and a rather heated argument between myself and the other board members ended with my comment about going home to “have sex with my girlfriend who is on the pill.”

Beyond that particular disagreement, I became more politically pro-choice. The libertarian in me found it offensive for the government to dictate to a woman what she could and could not do to her body. Sure, I wanted to reduce abortions (I hope we all do!), but I did not want to do so by legislating morality.

My libertarian side (or my economics background) also leads me to positions that are contrary to those of the Democratic Party. I tend to favor market solutions as opposed to government solutions to problems. I oppose universal government health care; I am skeptical about minimum wage laws; I oppose rent control; I support using trade-able pollution credits as a way to diminish emissions; I oppose hate crimes laws.

So why do I vote Democratic? Well, I put it this way to a former political colleague- I think it is easier to get the Democrats to see the light on economics than it is to get the Republicans to see the light on social issues. Of course, it is not that simple. I could go on about my disdain for the theocratic politics of the GOP or the attempts by some in the GOP to prevent people with brown skin from voting or the GOP’s use of wedge issues to divide the country, etc.

A lot has changed over the past sixteen years, and a lot has not. My values remain the same as they were, the same as they were instilled in me as a child. It is just that those values lead me to a different political conclusion. But, let’s be honest here, liberal-conservative, left-right are merely ways to avoid thinking about complex issues that face us.

Down here in Atlanta, and also to some degree in St. Louis, I was considered a liberal. Back in Massachusetts and New York they call me a moderate or conservative. But no matter where I am, I’m the same person with the same values.

(Obviously, I am no longer in Atlanta, having moved back to Massachusetts in the fall of 2007.)