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Today I went to the Slow Fast Food Fresh Mexican Restaurant (shall not be named, but think delicious) in in the shopping center where I used to work. The guys who worked there, knowing I was also an employee in the area, usually just passed it to me for free, or would at least give me a free drink cup. One of the guys, who I will call Juan, was about a year older than me. He was promoted from working at the register to being a manager in the four years that I worked in the shopping center. We got a chance to talk every once in a while, and he was going to school for engineering at Devry but had to keep working and the benefits were good.

Now I love this restaurant, so I went there today despite the fact that the line was out the door. When I got towards the front, my old pal saw me, and I recognized some other familiar faces. When he saw me, he asked what year I was in college, and I told him I was going to grad school for an MBA. I asked him if he was still going to school too. He was, but not this semester. I said something along the lines of, “you’ve got to take it one day at a time.” I could tell he was kind of upset though.

I spent my meal feeling a bit guilty about why I had the resources etc to go forward in school while this nice, seemingly talented guy was still in the same place (no where left to move up, really), like FIVE YEARS LATER. minimum, could be six depending on how we count.  It really broke my heart. And then I thought about how some day, when I had a good job, I would give him my business card and tell him I’d help him anyway he could. I’d tell him, “Imagine your dream job and tell me why you want to do it and I’ll do anything I can.” I thought about having the resources to give him a short term loan even. And then I thought about giving him my business card, if I had one on me, and telling him I would do what I could, but decided that seemed condescending and kind of ineffectual as well.  Besides, i had to make it myself first to have the credibility to make that kind of offer and the wherewithal to actually be able to help him.

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Before indulging myself in this take out, ( with what I spent on this one meal I couldI could have used to live on like, eggs and beans  and rice etc for like 3 days- it was only $9…) I was shopping for my seemingly more and more of a bf, I think ( in any case the guy I met in Paris about 3 months ago who is coming over to hang out before he goes back to Europe) who mentioned once casually walking by a bunch of electronic toys that he didn’t have those kinds of things to play with as a kid. So naturally, I bought a few fun toys as a Santa/going away/I love you present.  I’m sure he is going to love them.

Then i thought about getting him a wallet for his upcoming birthday, but decided against it because he wouldn’t realize I got the nice brand name from TJ Maxx for a fraction of its original price and it just seemed kind of materialistic in comparison to the other more thoughtful gifts. I didn’t want him to feel like I’d spent too much money on him or give him the impression I had oodles of cash to buy brand name leather goods either or embarass him if he didn’t get me stuff.  Plus, I can always go get it later if I feel the need to give him more. It just didn’t feel right to buy somehow. Besides, I am a graduate student so I am more than broke, I am in a large negative, for the moment.

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So how to soothe the liberal libertarian conscience? how to make sure all have the equal opportunity to succeed in an unequal world? How to make the world a bit more just?  I have thought about these questions a lot, and they are a big reason why I have wanted to go into public policy to make a difference instead of investment banking or something similar to make a buck.

What have I done to deserve the opportunities and advantages I’ve had?  On a cosmic, existential level, I can’t say. i can only say I don’t think I was born anymore deserving than anyone else, whether born in America or Algeria.

What I can say is, I’ve tried to make the most of what I had.  I know a lot of people with a lot more than I have ever had or dreamed of that have not made positive or neutral use out of it, that have wasted what has been given them. I think we all do this on occassion, (else what can we call procrastination?) but thankfully, I haven’t been led down the wrong path, thanks to God. Even if I gave away everything I had, or I tried to help every person in my path, I could not change the entire structure of the world. I couldn’t guarantee that if I gave someone money to go to school, for example, that they would finish and be successful in life. It’s not that easy. That doesn’t excuse me from trying, but within the parameter of talking care of myself.

it is good to know, “It is nothing to gain the world if you lose your soul.” But that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to gain the piece of the world you want. I think you can spend your life in almsgiving and other forms of charity, even working for a nonprofit, but you have to sustain yourself in order to give genuine aid to those around and affected by you. Otherwise, you are taking from one hand to shift to the other, not growing the pie. And don’t dare not live up to the best of yourself because you are afraid to fly, afraid to be better than the rest of them, afraid to stick out, and feel underserving of the gifts you were given. Surely God knows better than you why you got them so you have to make the best use of them to give in turn to others.

So I don’t really have an answer for inequality of opportunity or socioeconomic mobility or international development. I don’t know if we ever will, or we wille ver be able to implement it. What I can say is that it helps no one if I don’t take care of myself, c’eset a dire make the most of what God has given to me in His wisdom. Like an airplane in case of emergency, you do need to put on your own mask first- though that doesn’t excuse you from helping others. Instead, finding indiciual fulfillment is just the first step in the journey that goes beyond yourself.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”Howard Thurman

Postscript: On Pity

Don’t pity people who don’t have the same lives as you, who dont’ have the same advantages, be they blond hair or a big brain (not exclusive of each other), or a big wallet. Even if your greatest advantage is kind parents (I think this is really the biggest for anybody), and you watch other people struggle, don’t pity them. Have compassion. But moreover, know that the joy is in the journey. And even if you think, in all your infinite wisdom (har har) that you are better off, that your road is so much easier, that you will go so much farther, and what you have, your journey, is better, dont’ be so sure. The joy is in the journey, in a fight well fought. That’s what lets people sleep well at night, so before you start pitying, think of how you’ve been doing too, and realize you just CAN’t KNOW.

Maybe the original sin of mankind is really this rape of potential, the fact that some people seem to be winners and others losers, the fact that spoils are so unevenly divided, both before birth and after. But that’s not your fault. All you can do is help yourself, really. Any help you give another person is uncertain, no matter how satisfied it makes you feel. And you can’t teach another man to fish or even give a man a fish before you start fishing yourself. Become a master fisher, and give the world your art and your time, talent, and treasure. But first, your art.

Wishing you the very best,

MJ

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