A few years ago I met my hero and travel/entrepreneur icon Chris Guillebeau at a little book store in Arizona. I dressed up and sat wringing my hands in the audience while he spoke, then fidgeted and mentally rehearsed my script while waiting in line to meet him. When it was finally my turn I asked him the nagging question I’d held onto since the first time in high school I was handed the Nonconformist’s Manifesto.
I wasn’t concerned with finances, the gear he used, the airlines he chose or the credit he built.
I asked him how he could live the way he did without being guilt-ridden about his privilege.
Hi friends. I may be making a very difficult and wonderful announcement in a little bit. I’m still torn over it’s repercussions, and most of the tearing is due to my overwhelming sense of guilt that I am quite able to improve my life. I don’t know how to explain it another way; I feel super freaking guilty that I could get better if I chose to.
Because some people don’t have the choice, or at least not the way I do. For instance, I have a family in Los Angeles that practically begged me to live with them and accept the therapy they would pay for; how many can say the same? Like, I have friends who, until a couple months ago, were legally unable to get American Drivers licenses even though they’ve grown up here their entire lives, thus hindering their job prospects and all these other things in life. It’s stupid.
The past couple months of therapy has shown me that for all my fuck-you-I-do-what-want bravado, I am one of the most guilt-ridden sad-sacks I know. My modus operandi is to flip the bird and do whatever I wanna do, and then wake up a month later at two AM hating myself for it. Rinse and repeat.
If this thing that I may be announcing comes true, then I will be fully taking advantage of my privilege in a way that makes me kinda uncomfortable. Basically, it’s a potential job, an actual dream job, that involves children, leadership development, the outdoors, and not being a waitress or a barista for the rest of my life. It’s a “real” job, a meaningful job, a job that would allot me more money than I’ve ever seen as well as health benefits and vacation time. What do I even do with that?
Because that job would also keep me from returning to Arizona, to my broke-down, hopeful little Phoenix and the beloved friends who’ve been my family for years. It would keep me from the Franciscan idealism I thought I was faithful enough to embrace. It would keep me in La, and it would put me in an office, and it would put an end to the transient, kinda (read; hella) immature lifestyle I’ve stomped around in since turning eighteen.
I keep thinking, about various experiences, that THIS is the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make. Maybe that’s true, and life is just a series of really tough decisions over and over with increasing difficulty. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so torn.
Back to Guillebeau, my hero who I so brutally put on the spot about privilege all those years ago. Remember, I wanted to know how he could do what he did without losing sleep thinking of the brokenness in the world. But that isn’t really what I was asking, and I’ll bet he knew it. While I whispered and whined about the unfairness of his lifestyle, Chris nodded and blinked and waited. He probably knew right away this wasn’t really about him, but about my inability to reconcile the beauty in the world with the ugly. How do you enjoy the world you’re trying to improve? And what right do you have to be happy when so many people are not?
Chris eventually shrugged and said he simply didn’t feel guilty, and that he felt like he was doing exactly what he ought to do, and I left the bookstore unsatisfied and kinda sad.
And it’s taken me all these years to realize it made me sad because I hadn’t actually been asking him about his own sense of purpose; I was begging for allowance. I was wanting, almost desperately, someone to tell me it was ok to realize my own potential. I needed someone to give me permission to enjoy life, to travel or fall in love or work somewhere I was passionate about.
It’s taken years, but I’m finally really thankful Chris Guillebeau didn’t give me that allowance. It wasn’t his to give, and it wasn’t needed anyway. I’m starting to see that you don’t actually need permission to do the things you want to do. (within reason. obvs.)
(He did draw a monkey in that little book he signed for me, so that’s cool. Thanks homie.)
Anyway, all this to say, I’m trying to figure out the next step and I wonder if you’ve had a similar experience, and what you felt and what you did with it. Is your happiness twinged with guilt or are you a normal person who’s able to hold both the wretchedness and glory of being alive at the same time? What steps did you take to start thinking that way?