Civically Engaged and Politically Homeless
October 7, 2020
Buddhism observes that dharma is both taught and experienced. Sometimes we learn through the formal lessons people and institutions teach us, and other times we learn through what we experience personally. It’s tricky when formal teachings conflict with personal experiences, and that’s been the grand bummer of my 21st-century socialization.
When I was in college, I thought I was a Communist. I took a class on Karl Marx and thought, “What’s not to like?” I’m a socially-progressive Catholic, so obviously I was going to be a Marxist. You don’t love Dorothy Day without socialist principles leaving a sweet taste in your mouth—and I learned all about her in college, too. I learned about boatloads of brave people who were revolutionary in the name of love, and I was taught that this is what it means to be Catholic. So of course I went to the immigrant detention center every Friday morning to pray the rosary while loved ones were separated from one another indefinitely. Of course, I made sandwiches and brought them to people experiencing homelessness. Of course, I jumped at any opportunity to fight alongside people at the margins for justice. That was college. What I learned from teachers and what I experienced in the extra-curricular realm was mutually reinforcing. It was designed to be, and in that way was a bit misleading because the universe doesn’t always present us with experiences that cleanly align with what we’ve been taught by our textbooks and traditions.
I got my first teaching job right out of college, and I loved it. It paid $27,000 a year. I was thrilled to make that much money. I divided the number by 24 to see how much I’d earn each paycheck. $1125! That’s $2250 a month. I was rich! I immediately started scribbling out a budget now that I had all this money. I would give this much to my car payment, that much to my car insurance. This much to my mortgage, that much to my property taxes. This much to my student loans, that much to my phone bill. Do you know what’s especially hilarious? I thought I would have enough to put some away for savings!
When I received my first paycheck for 700-some dollars, I was so confused. What the heck happened? Am I this bad at math? Then I looked at my paystub and realized where it all went. And that’s when I knew I wasn’t a Communist. How was I going to live off of this?
Credit cards, that’s how. Fast forward a couple of years to even more debt, and the following conversation with whatever Chase employee had the utter displeasure of speaking with me:
“Hi there, I’m calling because you seem to be charging my account an amount of money that basically cancels out my monthly payment. I was wondering if you could help me.”
“You mean the interest charge?”
“Yeah. Can you lower that? Or stop it since I’m paying on time?”
“Ma’am, we don’t lower that.”
“Really? Can you please stop charging me, though? How am I ever supposed to pay this thing off if you keep charging me this money?”
“I’m sorry, Miss Hannah. There’s nothing we can do about that. Just pay more on that card each month if you can.”
What a chump I was. I had no idea. I had a flashback to playing the game Pay Day with my mom when I was a kid. The game board looks like a calendar, and you need to make money throughout the game while paying bills. I was losing terribly at it, and I looked at my mom and asked if this is what the real world was like. She said, “Pretty much.” I cried and we stopped playing. I was 9, and this didn’t feel all that different from 29.
I wondered why I didn’t learn about this sooner, and I still don’t really know. I come from a background where it’s an understanding that you need to work your ass off to scrape by, so I guess there was no need to discuss savings because there wouldn’t be any. I found myself looking back on my college years with a tinge of resentment because my teachers made it seem so obvious why and how you help the poor without question—and anyone who doesn’t must be intolerant. Meanwhile, I’m eating in a dining hall and living in dorm rooms without a care in the world until I eventually have to pay off that experience and the interest it has accrued. 10 years later, and I’m still in debt. Am I intolerant? Or is it possible that the ways in which I care for the poor don’t look like entrusting the government to do so with tax dollars? I’d like to think it’s the latter, and that’s why I’m conservative(ish).
I’d love to maintain the values that I was taught by my liberal arts education. The active, compassionate pursuit of justice and truth during my college years inspired me more than most things in my life. And my lived experience of truly struggling to get by for the majority of my adult life makes it hard for me to be happy about never seeing a third of my paycheck while the situation of the marginalized never seems to change. This Catholic appreciates the space Buddhism makes for being taught by both institutions and personal experience, and I wonder what our civic sphere would look like if it did the same. How might the traditions upon which our country was built be placed in generative conversation with our diverse lived experiences so we can co-create something that makes each of us proud? Whatever that thing is, please God, let it be lower taxes or clearer evidence that my income taxes truly help those in most need.