Privilege to Pine Needles
I’ll come right out and say it: I live a pretty posh life. The first time my 7-year-old niece saw our luxury apartment’s soaking tub, she called, “Mommy, look: a pool!” Our couch is white leather (Ikea via Craigslist, but still); we have a Vitamix; and our pad’s a light-drenched corner unit with floor-to-ceiling windows. The irresponsibly high rent payment includes daily gourmet fresh-ground coffee. I could go on but I think the point is clear. No, I don’t shop at Cartier or fly first class, but nothing in my life is anything like hardship.
My job at an education nonprofit rocks, too. The company’s mission is unassailable. All three managers I’ve had are true leaders—supportive, humble, and intelligent. My colleagues delight me. I’m paid well, and the benefits are bananas: 30 days of annual leave and 15% contribution to retirement, to mention a few.
My boyfriend is the bomb.com: the kindest, most chill, snuggly, loving, supportive, and goofy man in the universe.
In case it’s not triple clear from all of the above: I am not unhappy. At all.
So why consider for a minute walking away—however temporarily—to spend six months walking through the woods? Good question. It’s one I ask myself daily now and foresee asking myself hourly once we’ve actually put our stuff in storage and I’ve officially walked away from the crazy-good job and kissed the boyfriend goodbye-for-now.
One answer is that I am missing a deep sense of impact. As good as my job’s benefits, pay, and people are, and as well matched in theory as I am to the work (education, writing), most of the day-to-day tasks, to me, feel abstract and disconnected. While I get intellectually that my company makes a huge and tangible difference in the lives of teachers and students, there feels like too much distance between what I do and any given student actually learning anything. I’ve shared this with my manager and she’s worked to find me work that’s more tangibly satisfying, and that has helped … just maybe not enough.
I’ve done work I love for little money and work I don’t for lots, and both arrangements have merit. The last 12 years of my life have been the latter, though, and there’s a lot to like about floor-to-ceiling windows, annual international travel, all the books I can possibly read, and organic goat milk. Conversely, there’s a lot to dislike about thinking twice before adding guacamole ($1.80 extra!) at Chipotle.
But there’s also a cost to doing work you don’t love for money and comfort you do. It’s not even a poisonous or toxic cost—as I said, my present company has a mission I believe in deeply—it’s ethical, nonprofit work. Rather, the cost comes in the form of a hundred tiny lies I tell a day, to myself. Maybe they’re not even literal lies, they’re just ideas I can’t buy on a visceral level. They might be abstractly true: one of the company’s executives could read the paper I wrote on college and career readiness and it could contain just the analysis he needs to make the decision that takes the company in the direction that could give thousands of high school students information that could tell them which courses to take to put them on the best path to the jobs that they could be perfect for. But can you see what I mean about the distance between what I do and an actual impact on an actual person? I’m aware that some people can live comfortably in this abstract, big-picture space; indeed, our society’s wellbeing depends on people being able to do so. That work is needed and important. I just might be too literal to be the one to do it, and acting for the last year or so as if I’m not has taken a toll.
When I first broached the topic of the trail with my boss, she was more supportive than I could have imagined and wanted to hold the job for me while I traveled.
This felt wonderful—but also? And oddly? A tiny bit disappointing. Of course a safety net was a great thing, but, knowing I had the job to return to, would I do what I needed to do on the trail, would I figure out what work would fulfill me and have a self-evident impact on others? And if I did, would there be any way for me to do that work at my present company?
When my boss’s boss overruled her offer, citing past employees who failed to return after their sabbaticals, I could hardly blame him.
Of course snipping the ties from my company altogether is terrifying. But it also feels truer. On the trail, I might gain some deep inner peace or understanding about myself that motivates me, on finishing, to reapply and allows me to really flourish there. But this feels more like taking a break from a relationship and suspecting that at the end of the break, you’ll be two even more different-from-each-other people than you were while together. Knowing now that I have no obligation to return is actually the ultimate freedom.
I’m hopeful that the dichotomy I mentioned earlier, love the work and hate the pay or vice versa, is false—that I can in fact create for myself a meaningful, authentic career in which my skills and talents provide immediate, self-evident value for people such that they want to help me eat all the guacamole I can. On some level I believe that’s possible, but I also believe those people won’t materialize all at once, shaking fistfuls of cash in my face.
I might have to forgo the guac for a while.
So what does the Appalachian Trail have to do with it? Well, on the surface, spending six months in the least physically comfortable circumstances I’ll ever have experienced should provide the perspective I need to endure the guac-free months, the period without pedicures, the potentially crummy apartment … basically, the temporary “poverty” of starting out on my own. But bigger than a lifestyle expectation adjustment, the time on the trail will, I hope, help me get really clear about the exact shape and size of that self-evident value I can provide for people.
With any luck, and a lot of thinking, I’ll find my way back to the “comfortable” life with a truer sense of who I am and what I must offer the world. I know the answers aren’t on the trail, but I’m betting that being on the trail will be a really great way for me to find them in myself.
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