Sunday, September 18, 2011

Disparities of wealth and looking for my niche

Yet another NPR story made an impression on me. This one was from September 15, 2011, and the title was Making it in the US: More Than Hard Work. The point of the story is that blacks and whites may come from similar backgrounds as far as income goes, but whites have an easier time getting ahead because their families are more likely to be able to pass on assets. The white woman they interview says, "When I graduated, my mom had enough resources to give me her car so that I had a car to get to work so that I could earn money that I could then save to help put me into the next position." In addition, when this woman and her husband bought their first house, they used a $60,000 inheritance from her husband's great aunt.

I am white, and I did have some advantage growing up. Though my parents had little money, my mother's family had some money. I grew up in a home purchased and owned by my grandfather, and I knew that my grandparents would always make sure that we would not be hungry or homeless.

But, the wealth that benefited my mother stopped there. There is no wealth to be passed on to me. I went to college with people from wealthier backgrounds. I watched as my friends got summer jobs through their parents, got cars given to them by their families, or cars partially funded by their families. I watched as my friends were able to take a risk, to do unpaid internships, to pursue their dreams, because they knew that if things did not work out, they had their parents as a safety net. When I finished college, I knew that living with my parents was not an option. Both lived in remote areas, without public transportation, and I did not have a car. If I went there, I would never get out again. I would never get a job. Unlike my friends, I did not receive old cars cast off by family members. People in my family drove old, broken-down cars. The castoff cars which my friends received from their parents were in excellent shape compared to my family's cars.

My college classmates came from families of professionals. They thought is was normal to be a lawyer, doctor, professor, or businessperson. To me, the world of professionals was an alien world. I did not know how to act or how to dress in such a world. I could not imagine myself in that world.

When I was in my 20's, I thought the reason I was lost was because I was young, because I had not yet found my niche. But now I am still lost in my 40s. There are senators, lawyers, doctors, professors, and journalists who are younger than I am, and who are already prominent in their fields.

Would I have discovered my path by now if I had had the advantages my college classmates had? I don't want to dwell in self-pity. I just want to remind myself that it's not really fair to expect myself to be where my college classmates are today, because even though we came from the same college, there are other ways in which we did not come from the same situation.

Certainly I had more advantages than some people have. Certainly there are people who grew up with less than I grew up with, who have now gotten farther than I have.

I think there is probably no ideal background. Different personality types are suited for different courses in life. Some people are lucky to be born into a situation which fits them, which supports them becoming who they are meant to be. Other people find they need to turn away from the way they were raised.

I don't want to be a lawyer or businessperson. I was raised to detest the pursuit of wealth, and to value living off the land. I have adopted the values I was raised with. Perhaps that is part of my problem. People raised with privilege can afford to be idealistic. People raised in poverty desire to earn money so they can have a better life. Because my grandparents would make sure we were okay, when I was growing up, I did not feel the struggle for survival. Because my mother's family was well-educated, I was raised with idealistic values, values which said the pursuit of wealth is wrong.

My college boyfriend chose a practical major, and had multiple job offers to choose from before graduation. I chose the major that I liked, because I figured that studying what I liked would lead to working in what I liked. I finally got a job offer about four months after I graduated, and accepted it because it was my only option.

To me, acceptable careers would be in fields such as organic farming, renewable energy, wildlife biology, practical crafts, music, education, social work, library science, history, and journalism. These are fields consistent with my values, and yet, I do not have an aptitude for or interest in most of these fields. The challenge for me is to figure out if I have any skills that the world would find useful, and to figure this out while working full-time at a job which drains me of my energy.

Now I can just hear all the advice-givers saying that while holding a full-time job, I can still do things like networking, volunteer work, going to conferences, and taking classes. Believe me, I have been doing all that for decades. I suppose that even if I had had the luxury of doing unpaid internships during the summers when I was in college, I probably still would not have found my niche. Perhaps if I had been born into a family of lawyers, finding my niche would have been even harder, because being a lawyer is so far from what I want to do. Of course, if I had been born into a family of lawyers, I would have developed differently, so perhaps I would have grown into someone who did want to be a lawyer.

When we are young, they tell us that we can be whatever we want, we just have to dream big and work hard. But maybe that's a myth that just leads to bitter disappointment. I dreamed of things, only to find I was not cut out for them. I've worked hard. Now if only some serendipity would come to me. But serendipity comes from others, and as noted in previous posts, I've become more solitary because I've been getting more harm than good from other people. I know that I should go back to the more social life I used to live, because it is through connections that we find our way, and yet I crave more time to relax and reflect.

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