Coming to Terms with the Absurd
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
An aspiring journalist's lingering existential crisis while gaping at the looming "real world."
Needless to say, I’m freaking out about getting a job.
I have seven months left in school and six on the other side before I need to start feeding the monkey on my back [read: paying off my student loans]. There’s so much pressure, an expectation to get a good job that pays well in a big city and has potential for growth. Oh, and happiness, too. That’s important, I guess.
Resume. Cover letters. Writing samples. Website. Business cards. Networking. Emails, emails, emails. I keep hearing that jumping into journalism in your twenties is self-inflicted martyrdom: difficult to break into, even harder to make a living in. It feels like I’m a full-time employee working overtime to find a job post-grad. With all of this time and effort, I can’t help but ask if it’s enough, if it’ll land me a job that’s not making coffee for minimum wage, if it’s even worth it. What’s the point?
[I want to be clear: I’m not slipping into a metaphysical interrogation of work and employment. I don’t question the necessity to get a job out of college nor the value of money in my pocket. I just want to make sure that I’m directing this laborious effort towards the right end.]
What good do some words on a page do in the grand scheme of things, for the “greater good”? Am I just wasting my time indulging myself and my introverted wonkiness when I should be getting my hands dirty and really doing something with my time and skills?
I’ve spent a lot of restless moments sparring with these questions’ shadows and specters, round after round.
Anyone who knows me knows that I talk about my Pop-Pop a lot. It’s impossible to avoid sounding cliche when talking about “heroes,” but that’s the only title worthy of my grandfather. Stu Fuller was a man of compassion, of generosity, the best man I’ve ever had the privilege to know. Every morning, when I lock eyes with the man in the bathroom mirror, I always tell him to be a better man today, to continue the endless march towards living as Pop-Pop did.
Stuart V. Fuller grew up in the ashen breakers in the Pennsylvania Coal region, sorting anthracite rather than going to school. Later, though, he made his way as an old-school neighborhood banker, first in Millersburg then in Hershey. He found his motivation every day from getting to know his neighbors and being able to help them achieve their dreams, their American Dreams. I have memories of being with Pop-Pop in Pronio’s, the endearing and homely Italian market in “the village” in Hershey, and someone coming up to him with some variation on this:
“Excuse me, are you Stu Fuller? You gave me the loan that allowed me to get my first house thirty years ago. No one else at any other bank was interested, but you cared about me as a neighbor and you helped me out. I never forgot that, and that generosity has stayed with me all these years.”
He’d thank them with humbled graciousness, and he wouldn’t have to utter a single word to show me that that impact on his community, his neighbors, his fellow man was what motivated his work and his entire life.
Stuart “Pop-Pop” Fuller at my high school graduation, three weeks before his death
Those moments and that recognition were formative for me as I was finding my way and growing up. That one man could have such a tangible and real impact on those around him was a powerful image for me to see, and it’s stayed with me throughout my entire life, a constant call to live as Pop-Pop did, to help thy fellow man.
Throughout my life, I’ve always loved writing. It sort of runs in the family: my mother studied English literature in college and was a teacher for a bit, and my brother is a screenwriter and independent film extraordinaire with a keen eye for powerful art and a well-crafted narrative. Writing has always been a form of beautiful release for me, a dose of self-medication, a needle for my innermost fibers, but I’ve always questioned how much further its power extends.
How could writing, just some words in the vast, expansive ocean of life, help me be able to look in the mirror and say that I’m living like Pop-Pop had, that I’m helping others as he had?
In high school, my answer to that question was that it wouldn’t. Writing was a self-indulgent exercise to steady and help direct my own boat, but it couldn’t help anyone else or, at least, not to the same scale as actually doing something. Writing was leisure; I needed to work.
So, as I was seeing the door out of high school (finally) and looking at colleges, I was focusing entirely on what I could do with my life that would actually do something. I plagiarized a chapter or two from Stu’s book and became focused on nonprofit community development organizations known as community development financial institutions (CDFIs). These were basically banks that reached into the places to where the traditional and mainstream credit sources couldn’t or wouldn’t extend.
Especially after the 2008 financial crisis, banks became much more restricted as to what types of loans they could make. Consequently, then, the availability of credit in low-income areas or for applicants with poor credit scores or inadequate collateral weren’t even given the time of day with mainstream banks. Enter CDFIs to fill the gap.
I was entranced with the romance of it all: I could use my background as an economics major interested in social justice to actually do something. I could leave the office everyday and be able to point to a loan, a house, or a business in my community and know that my work had helped that become a reality. Sure, the money’s not that great with nonprofits, but I’ve never really cared about making buckets of money, as long as my heart is in the work.
And I could know for a fact that I was helping others just like Pop-Pop had before me.
[FLASH FORWARD: JUNE 19th, 2016, YORK BEACH, ME]
Yep, I somehow ended up unemployed in Maine. There’s a long story for how I got there, but the key word there is: unemployed.
I had started looking for and applying for summer internships six months before, over winter break in January in the living room of my family’s old house. I had sent my resume to twelve CDFIs: two got back to me. The first one was on the coast of Maine (no, not in York Beach) and they were extremely nice. I was applying for development internships, as I had discovered through previous experiences at CDFIs that I was happier selling the mission of the organization rather than the specific deal itself. They only brought on interns for credit analysis, and [drum roll] it was unpaid [cymbal crash]. Swing and a miss.
So I turned that one down. It was late March, I had so many other applications out, and I had some great experience and references behind me, so I felt confident about my chances. I had done my research, my resume looked pristine and was packed with evidence to back my case up.
The jurors didn’t agree. The second CDFI was in Philadelphia, and I had specifically applied for a development internship. I had a phone interview first, then drove to their office downtown for a face-to-face interview, and completed a writing assignment. They had been open and communicative right up until I was supposed to hear back as to whether or not I got the spot or not.
And then: strict radio silence. They wouldn’t reply to my emails or take my calls. To this day, I still never heard back.
After three weeks of frantic pacing and nervous twitching, awaiting a response and rationalizing the professional ghosting I was being subjected to, I finally decided to talk to some people in the Dickinson alumni network to try to find at least something somewhere that worked with nonprofit development. I interviewed with a nonprofit development consulting firm based out of Chicago, and, you guessed it: ghosted again.
I felt like I was back in middle school with a “kick me” sticky note on my back. And middle school was the worst. And high school. The worst.
I was dejected, defeated, shaken to my core: but, this was perfect! I could live like Pop-Pop had and feel good about myself and actually do something with my life!
Most of all, though, I was unemployed. So, I went to Maine to live with some friends and work by the beach as a waiter for a sit-down pizza shop. Well, if I can’t get an internship and put anything on my resume, I might as well enjoy my summer and make some money. Perfect, right?
Wrong. I was in the shittiest AirBnb (I’ll spare the details, but take my word on it) twenty five minutes inland from my job. I had made it clear with my boss that I wanted to be trained and start working as soon as I had moved up there and settled in. Apparently, she read that as a go-ahead for waiting three weeks before even putting me on the schedule for training. So I paid a lot of money out of pocket for rent, gas, and food for those three weeks, fretting the entire time about when I would start getting some hours to at least cover my costs.
I couldn’t do it.
I had gotten to a point where I felt like the world had just chewed me up, spit me out, hung a sign around my neck imploring others to continue the work and treat me like a piece of meat. My mental health, already somewhat in jeopardy, was a shred of itself, hanging on by a single fiber of strength. I was exhausted, mentally, physically, emotionally, and morally exhausted, and I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t strong enough, and I was too confused to know which way was up and what was right anymore.
I had worked so hard for so long to do what I felt like I was supposed to do. How could I end up here, now?
I slogged back home, the home broken by divorce, the home that had always been the worst place for my mental health throughout my life, out of necessity. My mom had moved to the next town over, my father into my late grandmother’s house across town. I went with my mom.
My costs were low, at least. I still didn’t make any money, as I had come too late for all of the seasonal jobs that come with any summer tourist trap of a place. I had two months of summer, no job, and minimal expenses.
So I began writing.
At first, it was just a way to distract myself from feeling like a defeated warrior, returned from the battlefield, bloodied and shell-shocked. I retracted inward and was constantly reading, soaking my days in a bath of words and ideas, trying to wash away the self-doubt with as much knowledge as I could cram into the passing hours. And I was drawn to stories and images of loneliness, of defiance, of individual strength, probably out of some deep desire to steer my ship away from the icebergs that loomed perilously close to my bow.
These stories; of Native Americans invisible to the mainstream cultural consciousness beyond the labels attached to them and fighting their own mental health struggles; of a woman standing erect as police in full riot gear charged at her with zip-ties and pepper spray; these stories reached down and grabbed me somewhere deep down and wouldn’t let me go. I was drawn to them like I was in the Death Star’s tractor beam, a powerful, almost visceral attraction.
And then, it all clicked; this was the answer to the question that had been ringing in my ear for years.
Stories have power and do, in fact, do something.
Human nature draws us together around storytelling. Our ancestors kept history alive through sharing stories with each other. We’re drawn to literature, film, magazine articles, podcasts, and other people that share a great narrative in a compelling and relatable way. We learn through stories; we relate to each other by sharing our experiences, insights, hopes, and fears.
And while it’s not as tangible as helping to support an organization or woman-owned startup business doing great work in the community, telling stories of those invisible in the mainstream media still holds value beyond just a personal outlet and passion for me. Whenever you turn on CNN or Fox News, or open up The New York Times or the Washington Post, the scope of coverage is somewhat limited to the usual suspects: big-name national politicians, business owners, Wall Street bankers, and others in the mainstream media. While these are important stories, no doubt, they’re not anywhere near representative of our society as a whole and the complexity and diversity of people who occupy this space alongside our lives.
I want to tell the stories of those who have been kept in the shadows, not necessarily discarded but disregarded, invisible to anyone not looking for them. These are the coal miners in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, swept up in a wave of globalization and climate awareness, who can’t continue to work in the mines but don’t know anything else and don’t have many other opportunities available to them. These are the individuals living with the continuous struggle of mental illness and addiction who don’t have access to adequate care and treatment. These are the families struggling to get by, juggling more things in the air than are manageable, trying to find their own American Dream in a world where dreaming is tough to muster. These are the young men whose skin color and faith put them under scrutiny, surveillance, and, in some cases, solitary confinement.
Empathy. Compassion. Awareness. Understanding. These cannot be realized and spread if you can’t see the person with whom you’re connecting.
And that’s what writing can do. That’s the impact I can have with writing. That’s how I can live like Pop-Pop: help to understand and lend a hand for each other. It’s not as straightforward as a loan for a house, but it still holds up to the social value test standing guard in my brain.
The core hesitation with the existential crisis that has lingered over me for the past few years has (even though I may not be fully aware or comfortable with this fact) a certain spiritual and metaphysical flavor to it.
Is there a purpose behind our existence? Is there a plan to which I need to follow lest I fear a life of sin and an afterlife of eternal fire and brimstone? Or are we just flickers in the fire of life, mere observers of a film flashing by us in the blink of a lifetime? From where does my life derive meaning?
As I’ve read more and wrestled with where to direct my life’s labors, these questions have always bubbled up from the deep below and made me squirm. I don’t think anyone really has an answer for that, and we can never really know if we’re ever in the right or not when we do formulate a half-answer for ourselves. I will admit here and probably for the rest of my life that, in this sense, I am not different, that I am not prophetic and claim to have the answers, or any answers at all.
If I did, I could probably make a lot of money. But that’s not me.
Throughout my time at Dickinson, I have always liked to say, with a mild self-deprecating smirk pinned to my face, that, “when at a small liberal-arts college, do as the students do: read philosophy.” [I own how utterly pretentious and snooty that sounds, and I am fully aware of how many stereotypes I am reinforcing by saying that.]
So, owning the elitist pretense oozing from this, I have been reading Albert Camus’s philosophy writings in the past couple of weeks, and I feel like it’s really helped me clear my head, take a deep breath, and launch myself over the cliff into writing.
Because this world of ours is, inherently, absurd.
Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus explains the idea of the “absurd hero” through the Homerian tale of the mortal man condemned by the gods to continuously and endlessly push a rock to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll back down to have Sisyphus repeat the struggle again and again. Camus is especially interested in the moment when our hero stands atop the summit and watches his rock fall back down, taunting him and robbing him of his victory; “at each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
“All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein [in that moment atop the mountain]. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning to his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.”
We, as humans, define our own purpose. We’re continuously pushing our rocks, finding beauty and meaning in the struggle. We take all of the disparate pieces of our lives together, the occurrences that seem to pivot our direction with an inexplicable opaqueness, and try to make sense of them and move forward from them as best we can.
When I first read Camus’s essay, I was blown away by the clarity with which I could translate the epic saga of my summer (which somehow seemed to pull some inspiration from some ancient Athenian) to its message of agency and freedom. There’s no set path for me, no checklist I need to check off, no predestined mission that is required of me to pursue. I am a free human being, as are we all, and I can carve my path in this world as I see fit with the information, experiences, and perspectives I possess at a given moment in my life.
If writing and telling these stories, these moving narratives of invisibility, is what I think is my purpose in life, then I need to pursue that wholeheartedly, giving everything of myself to that purpose, to doing the best that I can, pushing my rock up that mountain.
“That will lead us back to…”
No, not “do.” Getting a job. Right. Still have to do that somehow. The real world beckons, its hand outstretched.
How does one make their way doing this? Just “fake it ’til you make it”? Will I just have to resign myself to not making a whole lot of money but being really happy doing what I love? Is there a middle ground? How do I get there?
I guess I’m going to find out. But I’ve come to terms with the millions of voices ceaselessly questioning whether or not what I was doing — whether or not everything that I was doing — followed the purpose I was “called” to follow.
My purpose is my own, as is my work, my life.
I’ve set my coordinates upon the horizon. Now I must steer my ship towards them, jostling against the push and pull of the waves, enjoying every breath of life that I wrangle from what’s left of my journey, this beautiful life.