Society—other people, systems, institutions, culture—has so much more power over our lives than the average person gives it credit for. Acknowledging its outsized influence is devastating at first, incompatible as it is with a vision of the individual as master of their own destiny, culpable in failure and deserving in success. But there is a freedom in relinquishing our illusions of control. If I am not charge of my destiny, if my class or race or assigned gender or national origin are stronger determinants of my fate than my individual decisions, it matters less what choices I make. I can make the choices society prescribes for me, or I can choose a different path.
A little less than six years ago, I fled back to school hoping that when I finished, I would be able to avoid the stress and disappointment of looking for a job without a college degree. I had just been laid off from my job as a technical support specialist and was already attending community college part time, so it seemed fortuitous, especially since my partner and were talking about me quitting my job and going back to school full time once he found a teaching job. I made the leap and enrolled in a full load of classes at my local community college.
(Society told me going back to school was a respectable choice, the right choice. I should have graduated from college a long time ago, according to chrononormative* standards, anyway, and won’t a college degree give you a leg up in the job market? They can never take your degree away from you, they say, and promise it will all be worth it, all the struggling and debt and biting your tongue.)
There was no way for me to know five years ago that I would be graduating into a job market even more unfriendly to folks like me than I had avoided by entering college in the first place. No way for me to know that I would be made more disabled by my time in academia; definitely no way for me to know that the world as I understood it would effectively be ending in slow motion, that overt and aggressive fascism and white supremacy would be in power all over the world, that the naively hopeful environmental trajectory I thought we were on would be replaced by dire warnings of our dwindling opportunity to halt the inevitable collapse.
But—this is actually an okay place to be, for me. Even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Even if sometimes it hurts so bad I wish I could sink into the molten outer core of the earth. Systems are failing, nakedly, obviously. That means there is no way for me to blame myself. There is no way for me to be exceptional enough to overcome an actual apocalypse. If I learned anything from studying sociology, I learned that.
At last, finally, and in the end, I understand: It’s not me, it’s society.
I once believed that higher education was a refuge for the bookish and bright. Being the kind of learner that prefers to absorb a subject through obsessively researching as much as I can on it, I found only misery in elementary and high school. I felt trapped, forced to learn in a regimented way, forced to adhere to conventions set by long-dead colonizers and bootlickers and other types interested in turning children into compliant cogs in a surplus-generating machine. College, I thought, would be different, would be more open to the kaleidoscope of brains humanity contains. Despite having attended college on and off since I was sixteen, I didn’t have enough long-term experience with it to dispel my idealistic beliefs. I was always too crazy to attend class regularly, always withdrawing mid-semester to deal with some emotional upheaval, some mental collapse. And I was so drugged up and indoctrinated into various mainstream viewpoints that I probably wouldn’t have noticed the reality of it all even if I had managed to spend any length of time at school.
This time around, though, I noticed. I noticed all the ways higher education operates to exclude folks like me, all the ways it demands exceptionalism in the face of its own mediocrity, all the ways it perpetuates a status quo of ableism, capitalism, cisheteropatriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and imperialism. And as I got further into my upper division major work—sociology—I noticed even more. It became too much to bear too many times to count. The small ironies piled up like so much oppressive detritus, my daily commute a recounting of historical and present-day trauma, my thoughts a running tally of injustices: I am currently driving on a freeway system built by displacing poor people of color, past houses big enough to hold every single houseless person I meet on the way, to a campus more concerned with the appearance of diversity than materially improving the lives of its Black or disabled or queer or immigrant students, to learn about the impact of housing discrimination on intergenerational wealth in whites versus Black folks.
I channeled my anger, my outrage and existential despair, let it flavor impassioned papers and pointed presentations, but it felt hollow, was hollow. It meant nothing, and I knew it. I had to endure the slights, had to make do when my disability accommodations were phased out, had to push myself beyond the point of burnout to finish my degree. Because in my mind, if I didn’t, I’d just spent five years and however many tens of thousands of dollars to have my dreams crushed without even getting a receipt. As much as I wanted to be the kind of bitch that says you know what, I’m good and forges their own degreeless path in life—as much as I had effectively been that bitch for the first part of my adult life out of necessity—I felt obligated to finish, not only for myself but for the loved ones who were sacrificing to help me get through school.
To stay motivated, I told myself that I’d find a job quickly once I finished school. I knew this was a fiction, but it was a necessary one—more than once, the specter of graduating and still being unable to find a job almost convinced me to drop out. I pretended as if this degree really would allow me to navigate the job market with ease, picking and choosing from a panoply of well-paying jobs with full benefits, leapfrogging over my un-degreed competition. But even if that were the case, I was using every last bit of my energetic reserves to reach a finish line that had shifted since I started the race, leaving me in no condition to leapfrog over anything. I spent the first few weeks after graduation pretending it was just another summer, trying to recharge a little before I started my job search.
A manic episode lent me the optimism to apply for a dozen or so jobs and write sparkling cover letters to each. The inevitable fibro flare and depression that followed forced me to acknowledge the truth of 2019’s job market hellscape. Several of the $15/hr-and-under positions I applied to expected me to do free labor in the form of aptitude tests and their ilk. (For some jobs, I did these, because I felt the position/salary would be worth it, and the tests weren’t too egregious. On others, I declined.) Out of the positions to which I applied, only one has even opened my resume—I’ve received no response from that employer at the time of writing, two weeks later. One job I was particularly excited about, one whose qualifications I greatly exceeded and whose hours and duties perfectly matched my needs, had over a thousand applicants at last update. A few jobs have “moved to the next stage in their hiring process” without my resume even being acknowledged.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to be jobless for a while, if traditional employment is the way I insist on making my living. I can write about it now, find the silver lining in my misfortune, because it’s been a couple weeks and I’m high as fuck. But realizing that I just spent five years under some of the most extreme stress of my life to basically end up worse off than I started broke me for about a week. My always-tenuous commitment to staying in corporeal form dwindled to nonexistence more than once, but I happily do not own anything capable of killing me in a guaranteed manner, so I’m still here.
(Kidding, kind of. As long as the people who love me are here on this planet, I’m staying in solidarity. But things did get pretty pale in my head.)
I cannot Black excellence my way out of being on earth as worlds crumble around me. I cannot young, Black, and gifted my way into insulating myself from climate collapse, into financial security, into overcoming a system built to oppress and exploit folks like me before leaving us to become casualties of their disregard for life. All I can be is open to learning how to live in different ways, how to ride the waves of change such that I can keep my head above water, keep what’s important in sight. And if I can’t keep my head above water, I can learn to take bigger breaths before I go under.
If I could travel through time, I would impart this wisdom to 34-year-old me on the eve of their decision to go back to school. I would whisper in her ear: Do not give in to fear. Leap. You will find you have wings. I don’t know that I would fly, that things would turn out any better if I threw myself into professional writing in 2014 instead of seeking the comfort of official validation, but I might have avoided destroying my health in order to get it. I really thought I needed the legitimacy of a degree. I didn’t. Turns out what I needed was to finally internalize the idea that it’s not me, it’s society. For accomplishing that, at least, perhaps going back to school was worth it. For what it did to my emotional and physical well-being, decidedly, it was not.
It’s the end of the world—at least, it’s the beginning of the end of a way of living based in colonialism, ableism, white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, and cisheteropatriarchy—and that means we don’t have to do things the same way anymore. We never did, but we have even less incentive now that doing things the way we were told to do them has been so starkly revealed as a path to destruction and separation from god, god being that spark of the divine we each hold within us, the glue that binds us to each other and the planet and all beings across the universe. The way of living that tells me that I must depend on a boss or a landlord or a mayor or a president to manage my work, my housing, my community, my people, is the same way of living that has cleaved Indigenous land from Indigenous humans, the same way of living that is rendering the planet uninhabitable for large human populations, the same way of living that I will reject every single day until it has been banished from this earth.
We must reject ways of living that perpetuate systems of oppression if we are to have hope of humanity surviving the catastrophic change that is underway. But since systems of oppression also shape the ways of living we have available to us, this rejection will come with pain and sacrifice, especially for those of us who are subjugated under the same systems. I know this, I been known this, been known revolutionary change is full of what we are taught to perceive as negative emotions and experiences, but that there is growth contained within them. If a little pain, a little discomfort on my part, on our part, could propagate through the system all the way up to the institutional level, could destabilize the systems that oppress us, wouldn’t it be worth it? Especially when—in my experience, at least—pain can be a catalyst for awakening, and a pleasure unto itself.
For me, the desire to be traditionally employed is partially rooted in a genuine concern that my disability might prevent me from being able to manage freelance or self-employed life. Putting the responsibility for finding streams of income on myself and not on some professional who ostensibly knows what they’re doing is a terrifying prospect when I consider how few days out of a month I feel well enough to work on projects. At the same time, I do get shit done despite how I feel. I don’t have to feel good about something in the moment for it to be worthwhile. In fact, the most worthwhile things I’ve done have often been ordeals to get through.
That’s not to say that everything worthwhile must be painful, or that suffering is necessarily productive—I would never endorse that idea. Sometimes, though, the only way we get out of a destructive situation is for it to become untenable, uncomfortable, painful. Sometimes pain is a friend nudging you: Are you safe here? Is this what you really need? I’ve been trying to understand what this pain is trying to tell me, this discomfiting space I’m in where I don’t know when I’ll find work, how I’m going to support myself, where I’m going in life when it comes to career.
Before I got my sociology degree, I might have blamed myself for my inability to find a job. I might have taken the metaphorical whip to my own back, expected that I would be able to make up the gap between economic expectation and reality by hustling, killing myself to meet a capitalist ideal of productivity and employability. Now, I know. It’s not me, it’s society. Trying to be middle class, trying to live up to hegemonic ideals of success, is destructive. What I am feeling is in part the shame of not being able to consume the same disproportionate amount of resources as my parents did, the anguish of believing hard work gets you anywhere, the guilt of having held that ideology against the poor and the houseless and other unfortunate souls I probably thought myself better than, the humiliation of having that ideology thrown back in my face when I cannot succeed under the same terms.
(And when I say I, I mean we. None of us are safe here, and this is the opposite of what we need.)
This job market, this disappointment post-graduation, is painful for me to confront. It’s a bit of the same pain I felt when I came to understand that higher education was not a great equalizer but merely a mechanism to perpetuate the status quo, the same pain I feel when I hear people defend throwing families in cages because they violated some law, the same pain I feel when I see folks saying we can’t take radical action on climate change or abolish prisons or dismantle capitalism because it will cost too much or be unfair to folks who paid off their loans or their debt to society or whatever milquetoast excuse the centrists are offering that day. We insist on adhering to the tenets of a way of life that is killing us. I adhered to them by going back to school, even though I had literally no reason to, was receiving no real benefit besides the false sense of security that comes from doing the right thing. If we just work hard enough. If we get a degree. If we are exceptional. If we go high when they go low, if we open a business in a disadvantaged community for three years, if we are silent as the waves of change crash upon us, as the inexorable tide of exploitation pulls us under, we might become one of the lucky ones.
The past is the past. I made my choice, I went back to school, I graduated. But now, I intend to break away, take a different path than the one society prescribes for me. A scarier path, but maybe a more realistic path. A path that I forge myself, with guidance from others who have navigated this chaos longer than I have, successfully. I want to write full-time, or as full-time as my bodymind allows. It isn’t my first choice to make writing my primary source of income—it is partially a function of the reality of the job market—and I may end up needing to find part-time work to supplement my income after all. The more I think about it, though, the more I believe that making writing my full-time job is at least something worthwhile for me to attempt. Writing is where I see myself doing the most good on this planet, and despite the awful state of publishing, I think I have a chance—however tiny—at my version of success. It will be hard. It will involve a lot of rejection and crying jags and questioning whether I ought to just peace myself out and avoid all the misery. It could also be the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. The way I find community. The way I build community and leave a legacy of work for the folks who live after I’m gone. I have nothing to lose, anyway. We have nothing to lose but a world that would see us in chains again.
It’s not you, it’s society. And society is in shambles. What would you do if there was nothing holding you back, if you had nothing left to lose, if everything you thought you knew turned out to be a lie? What will you do now, at the beginning of the end of this world?
* Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke University Press. 2010.