Debt of Gratitude: Less Earning, More Learning

I’d like to share a story, a personal story, a common story, an American story. For nearly two decades, I have carried the burden of a crushing student loan debt, well over six figures and impossible for me to fathom paying off in this lifetime. While I have written before about debt in a more generalized sense — advocating for a “Jubilee” as the ultimate stimulus and a chance for all of us to start anew — I’ve never connected it publicly to my own plight. The reasons are complex, but have to do with fear, fear of vulnerability, fear of judgment. I suspect that many people burdened by debt feel similarly and are often constrained to bear the pressures silently.

My story is relatively straightforward. I attended a private college (majoring in physics and astronomy, which did not yield any obvious career potential for me) and then a private law school. After clerking for a federal judge for a year, I was hired in the fall of 1992 to work at a large corporate law firm in mid-town Manhattan, complete with the accoutrements of privilege and compensation. I seemingly “had it all,” at least on the outside, and any rumblings of discontent — after a lifetime of being a working-class person — seemed somehow ungrateful.

Still, a series of events eventually forced that discontentment to the surface. Working for corporate polluters, white-collar criminals, militaristic multinationals, and the like can have its deleterious effects on one’s psyche, no matter what it pays at the end of the month. I realized in fairly rapid fashion (about ten minutes, actually, even though it took me ten months to extricate myself from the firm) that I could not separate my ethics from my earnings or my morals from my meals. I wanted to work with people, not for (or even against) them, and likewise had a strong desire to try and make the world a better place rather than the worsening one experienced by the vast majority of people.

In the end, the expensive suits and loft apartment couldn’t mask the fact that my soul was sick and my spirit dying. Yes, I could have worked at the high-powered firm for five to seven years (which sounds like a prison sentence, in retrospect) and likely paid off my debts, and then written my own ticket (financially speaking) after that — but the implicit (and carefully concealed) violence I would have done to human and ecological systems in the process simply made the cost too high. Indeed, it is mainly the manner in which our lives are shielded from the true costs of our actions and choices that makes modern society even possible to endure, and it is the steady erosion of this thin veil of constructed ignorance that is beginning to alter the widespread “false consciousness” in ways that are simultaneously horrifying and promising.

One of the experiences that helped prompt me to walk out the door and never look back was the nascent friendship I had randomly struck up with a homeless man on the streets of the city. I didn’t realize it fully at the time, but his impact on me was as great as any person’s in my life, and he’ll likely never know it. The emerging realization of this came to me one day when some colleagues from the firm saw me having lunch with my homeless friend, and afterwards commented to me how nice it was that I was trying to “save” him. I thought about this for a minute, and (in a moment of personal recognition) replied that “he’s actually saving me.”

A few weeks later, I had quit my high-paying job, sold most of my belongings, and had nothing but the unknown road ahead. I spent the next couple of years mostly car-camping, sleeping rough, staying with friends, eating potatoes, bartering, writing bad poetry, making music, getting healthier in my own skin, following signs (literal and figurative), and otherwise chasing rainbows. I also used the time to plant the seeds of the next chapter in my life, which serendipitously emerged in the opportunity to attend graduate school and pursue a doctorate in Justice Studies. While ambivalent about the institutional nature of this move, I realized that it had the potential to allow me to reclaim my core values while still participating more directly in the world at the same time.

The following years found me living on about $10,000 or less annually, riding a bike or skateboard to school, learning about justice in its fullest sense, and becoming an advocate and activist around issues of homelessness and poverty. My dissertation was completed in 2002 and spoke directly to these themes, and in 2008 a revised version appeared as the book Lost in Space. In 2001, I was hired as an instructor at Prescott College to teach Peace Studies, which doubled my salary but still left me at about one-fifth the level I was making in my law firm days. Despite this sense of apparent downward mobility, I realized that I had found a calling.

But then another sort of calling began in earnest: debt collectors calling me, repeatedly, at work and elsewhere. For about a decade I hadn’t earned much more than $20,000 in any given year (and most years far less), but once I was hired as a faculty member (again increasing my salary but still leaving me way down on the scale for someone with two doctorates) the sharks started to sense blood and swarm around me. At first I felt paralyzed with a mix of remorse, shame, and fear, so I did nothing. Soon after, my wages were being garnished, which embarrassed me at my place of employment, and the fuller experience of the stress that comes with the realization of permanent impoverishment and lifelong indebtedness began to emerge. Despite having studied poverty issues and being well-versed in the social psychology attendant to them, I still felt the internalized stigma of societal “failure” at not having “made it” by the usual measures of success.

In 2008, I took a second full-time job (again nearly doubling my salary) as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, driven partly by my life’s work as someone dedicated to the pursuit of peace and justice at all levels, and also partly by the fact that I now had two young children in the mix. At this juncture, I was able to finally work out some sort of agreement with the student loan collectors, lumping everything together to the tune of over $150,000 and making regular monthly payments that push myself and my family to the brink (past it, actually) of being able to make ends meet. But the recognition, in all likelihood, of never being able to get out from under this massive burden still weighs on me every day.

Just recently a reminder of that pervasive vulnerability — the one that comes from a lifetime of being working-class, always one paycheck away from dispossession, and having no savings whatsoever to fall back on — was delivered to my doorstep. Apparently, one relatively small student loan had been somehow omitted from the consolidation process, to the tune of about $5000, and the collection agency began calling random people at my place of employment in an attempt to shame me into calling them back and paying it off. This was quite likely illegal, in that they identified the company they were with to these colleagues, but it had the desired effect of making me feel, again, vulnerable and exposed. Now I have to pay them another $100 per month on top of the already-untenable figure being paid on the larger debt.

Two decades after walking out of a corporate house of mirrors in search of more useful and meaningful horizons, I remain tethered to that choice through years of compound interest, penalties, fees, and such. Yet I am grateful in some ways for that, since it serves to keep my life “real” on many levels and even perhaps ensures that I maintain a reflective process about who I am, what I am doing, and why. Still, it yields a great deal of perpetual stress, constrains my life choices in the world, and impinges upon my capacity to provide for my family. I suppose, at the end of the day, that the corporate masters get their money either way — a pound of flesh or the equivalent in monthly payments. But they did not get my soul, and perhaps that makes all the difference…

I mention all of this here with a mix of fear and hope. While the experiences of my own life serve to inform my writing, I generally strive to keep the personal details and motivations in the background rather than the foreground. But why? In my daily life and activism, I hold firmly to the belief that personal choices are eminently political ones, and vice versa. I try to live simply, consume consciously, treat others how I would be treated, be of service to the world, and in general “walk the talk” as much as possible — so why don’t I feel safe writing about things in those terms? I surmise that the uncomfortable nature of personal vulnerability is also bound up with the collective (and perhaps ultimate) vulnerability of living in a time when the continuation of our human existence hangs in the balance by increasingly delicate threads. To some extent, this palpable sense of vulnerability has been individualized and privatized, much like the debts one accrues in pursuit of an education and the basic desire to be socially useful.

Will telling this tale change the paradigm? Unlikely. But maybe if we all begin to do so — to connect the personal and political, to share the fear rather than bear it alone — maybe things will at least improve enough in our own lives so that we become more empowered and learn to explore the bonds of authentic community in the process. If my personal financial burden is useful even a little bit in that regard, then it is, in the end, one that I must acknowledge as a debt of gratitude.