Many moons ago, I had a mentor who liked to tell a story about an intern they’d once worked with. So talented was this young reporter, so driven, that no one at the paper knew for months that the intern was living in a van.
As far as I can remember, the van was voluntary and temporary, a way for the intern to save money while finishing college.
The point of my mentor’s story was determination… passion. The story was meant to celebrate this budding journalist’s willingness to sacrifice — humbly — for what they wanted.
But the story never felt right to me. I didn’t feel inspired.
On its face, the intended moral of the story felt… misplaced. Sure, the intern was passionate… but is that the lesson here? Is foregoing a basic need like housing — even voluntarily — something we should find inspiring? Even if the intern wanted to live in a van, did eschewing stable housing make them more… passionate? Virtuous?
That story gave me the same feeling I get when I see a “human interest” feature about an elementary school kid who organizes a bake sale to raise funds to pay off their classmates’ unpaid lunch fees. It gives me the same feeling as a “feel-good” piece about someone who’s able to pay for astronomical medical bills because a Kickstarter campaign took off. In all of these stories — including the intern in the van — the headline is, “Look at the ingenuity/resiliency/kindness of humans,” when it should be, “Look at how hard capitalism screwed these people.”
I’m sure I took the story far too seriously, overly earnest creature that I am, and construed it in a way my mentor never intended. Maybe the intern liked living in a van. I’m sure it was temporary. Determination in the face of adversity is a virtue. And I know my mentor — someone I learned a lot from, and who I still deeply respect — never meant any harm.
But the story wouldn’t go away for me.
There’s something inherently wrong in the notion that we should humbly forego — even temporarily — basic needs to achieve our dreams. There’s nothing inspiring in that for me. It just feels sad, like an obvious sign that our society is flawed… and cruel… with a flair for the dramatic. (If that was the point of the story, it was never conveyed.)
There’s also something inherently American about mythologizing someone’s ruggedly individualistic struggle (if it even was a struggle for this intern). And there’s something inherently masculine about glorifying struggle. Journalism is rife with this crap, from the way we tell stories to the way many of us live our lives.
And not everyone can do it; not everyone can live in a van… or not get paid for months or go without health insurance or work from home. How much can a single parent, with little to no outside help, sacrifice in the name of passion? What about someone with a chronic medical condition who requires medication and regular doctor’s appointments? How many talented people are denied access to their dreams because they just won’t — or can’t — sacrifice anything else? It doesn’t matter how much you want something, having it is worthless if you can’t meet your basic needs.
It’s one thing to remind young folks they shouldn’t let their passions be wholly driven by money, but it’s quite another to perpetuate the dramatized notion of the “starving artist.”
And it’s just like a damn journalist to play up the wrong angle in the headline.
As this hexed year drug on, the gap between the haves and the have-nots got even bigger. Maybe that’s part of what dredged this story up for me now, for the hundredth time.
Doomscrolling through Twitter one evening, my eye caught a post by Rana Abdelhamid, a healing justice activist out of New York:
“Mutual aid networks, food pantries, good neighbors, organizers, activists, families, mothers, educators and their unpaid labor are what’s holding down this whole country right now.”
Their unpaid labor. Amen.
The pandemic laid bare this country’s gross inequities, just how much people are expected to “bootstrap” or “grin and bear it” or “take personal responsibility.” When the cost of living keeps going up and the cost of wages continues to stagnate, just how much personal responsibility can the average American assume for not having a large savings account? Just how much are they required to sacrifice in the name of pursuing the busted promise of the American dream? Who gets to sacrifice things like housing, and who can’t? Should anyone ever have to do that?
No. The answer is no. Not any American, not any human on this planet.
I was hesitant to write this essay because I fear judgment: that I’m lazy or entitled, that I don’t understand how good I have it in this country, that I misunderstood the story. But that’s part of why I wrote it. I’m tired of politely listening to stories that don’t resonate with my experience, or the experiences of those around me. I’m tired (and ashamed) of turning a deaf ear in order to not deal with the discomfort of confronting someone. And I’m white. People of color know way more about this than I do.
Men, in particular — but by no means exclusively — seem quite at ease with sharing a story and calling it gospel.
Well, that ain’t gospel, friend, it’s just your perspective. And this is mine.
It matters how we talk to one another. The stories we tell ourselves and others matter. We should pay attention to how stories do and don’t represent lived realities. A good journalist knows that a story’s power comes from providing context. Sure, a white guy voluntarily living in a van to launch his journalism career might be really inspiring to another white guy who also once voluntarily lived in a van to launch a career in journalism, but that’s not everyone’s experience, nor should it be. I’m not knocking the intern’s determination; they clearly loved journalism more than me, because even if I had a van, I’m not going to live in it for journalism. That’s just my job, just one piece of my identity as a person. I am much more than a profession. And until we break the bonds of capitalism, I have to survive in this system.
Maybe the story was meant to help me understand how far I would go for this profession. In that regard it succeeded.