HOW THE DESERT CHANGED MY VISION FOR POLITICS
Editor’s Note: So often in life the hard times—the journeys through the proverbial desert—leave us deeper, wiser, and stronger than we were before. Today’s journal, from a current congressional staffer, illustrates this idea and how deepened, matured perspective can change not just how we see our circumstances in the journey, but also how we can change the way we engage or shape culture more broadly. Seasoned perspective isn’t just for us to keep inward, or to fill a journal and tuck it away onto a shelf. It prepares us for the destination.
As today’s writer notes, there is much to be learned in the process of waiting. We all want to arrive, to be filled, to feel as if life finally fits as it should. But followers of Jesus have a greater hope that there is a destination, that there is a Kingdom ruled by Truth and Beauty coming. I believe this hope in the destination actually can change how we live life now, even in the process of our politics. I believe one day we will look back at so much of our political engagement and wonder what we would have done differently if we were gripped all along by the reality that LIBERATUS—we are set free.
-Caleb Paxton, LIBERATUS Founder
HOW THE DESERT CHANGED MY VISION FOR POLITICS
For me, finding “the job of my dreams” meant going to Washington, D.C. Much to my dismay and disillusionment, the process of finding fulfilling employment proved to be the grueling endeavor that so many of my peers have experienced as well. I’ll never forget going to a job fair on the Hill for my particular field. Surveying a packed room of people who looked just like me, I realized that we all wanted the same thing. And there were more of us than there were jobs. “This market is decidedly not in equilibrium,” the nerd economist warned in my head.
Lasting just short of a year, my job search pushed me to the edge of many pernicious assumptions I silently accrued over the years. In many ways, this time in the desert was detox for me, as I slowly chose to release the (slightly immature) lie that I was entitled to what I wanted. Letting go of this lie was admittedly painful, bringing many discouraged conversations and exasperated prayers.
Even so, this desert journey taught me more about vision than any other experience in my life. Like most young, ambitious job-searchers who come to Washington, I thought I already had the “vision thing” sorted out. Heck, I had my goals ironed out to perfection in yearly increments! How else can you ace the crucial elevator pitch in those informational interviews?
Yet, the process of walking through a desert of difficulty challenged me to reevaluate the vision I brought to D.C., and to entertain the possibility that something more fulfilling and beautiful could be mine…if I was willing to wait for it.
Here’s what I learned in the waiting:
1. Nobody achieves anything alone.
I’ll never forget that phone call with my dad when I was standing near the corner of 6th & E St. NE, pitch black outside, wringing my hands about how to fund a job search in one of America’s most expensive cities. He had generously offered to fund my living expenses while I looked for work, allowing me to be a full-time job seeker. I could feel the pride welling up inside me, and these words came spilling out of my mouth: “I just want to be independent and not live off someone else’s money.” What he said next are words I will carry in my soul for the rest of my life:
“Forget everything you’ve heard about the ‘self-made man.’ People never achieve anything alone.”
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but my options were admittedly limited.
I suppose it says a lot about my life that having an all-expenses-paid job search was the toughest challenge I had yet faced. It was a far cry from boot camp or training camp; but after ten months of my desert of dependence, I found employment. But it came without the glory of the self-made mantle. And isn’t that the case with anything great in life, politics included?
Imagine a political culture celebrating the individual and the community as complementary, not incompatible.
Imagine members of Congress sacrificing the limelight to achieve something together, instead of grandstanding for individual gain.
Imagine congressional staffers involving each other in big projects, even if it means sacrificing personal recognition and sharing credit.
It may be imaginary, because I don’t see this in our daily life. But I want to be part of building this reality.
2. Life doesn’t get any easier with age.
In yet another “crisis call” with my dad (this one at Mass. & 2nd NE), I bemoaned my existential predicament: “I just want to get a job so everything can be easy again.” After a long pause, my dad answered with fatherly tenderness:
“Son…life does not get any easier after this. It only gets harder.”
You could hear a pin drop. It was almost too much to handle. I’m laughing as I write this – it’s funny looking back with a seasoned perspective on my heart-sleeve immaturity.
I had bought into a myth that the desert was an anomaly. This false expectation led me to place an inordinate amount of hope in “the job,” the only thing standing between myself and a return to normalcy. Learning to let go of this lie was painful, but over time I began to replace it with a healing truth: my current moment, whatever reality it entails, is full of blessing and grace.
This was more than a positivity survival tactic; it was a beautiful truth that allowed me to find priceless value in the now.
What would America look like if political activists started giving thanks for the liberties we have now instead of warring for the rights we have either “lost” or “yet to secure”?
How different would this country appear if our leaders rose to meet our greatest challenges of the day instead of viewing them as crises to be exploited?
What if Hill staffers painted these vignettes of optimism for our bosses instead of briefing the divisive negativity that is so often rewarded in Washington?
There is grace in the desert moment, if we are willing to wait and look.
3. Who I become in the journey is more important than what I achieve at the end.
Yup, you guessed it…another father-son conversation. This one took place in my Capitol Hill apartment about four months into my job search:
“Dad, I’m just ready to move on! I’ve always been about the bottom-line: getting to the end of a journey – arriving! I don’t care about process, just the result.”
Then, yet again came my dad’s kind answer. While I can’t remember his exact words, they went something like this:
“I’ve always been a fan of the process. It’s amazing to see who I become during a journey.”
This frustrated me to no end, because process involves waiting. It entails the nitty-gritty of moment-by-moment. I saw no value in the journey, only in the destination. The arrival heralded achievement met, ambition realized. In my heart, I tied my significance to the bottom-line.
Our culture does this all the time. America has bought into the bottom-line hook, line, and sinker. From business culture to political culture, we fly at Mach 5 seeking to smash the glass ceiling in record time, only to look above and see another ceiling towering over our heads.
What if we used our politics to tell a better story?
Could the Right admit that the past it so genuinely seeks to preserve may in some ways limit us from living fully and honestly in the present?
Could the Left recognize that the future it so admirably yearns to actualize may partially blind us from the beauty our current age holds?
Could we escape the tug-of-war between conserving the past and progressing into the future by living in-between them together?
This is not a suggestion to forsake ideology and conviction – far from it. I believe the Right and Left can complement each other in ways we cannot now imagine. In some ways, I believe they need each other to remain beautiful and true. This generation of public servants has an opportunity to demonstrate this truth, and it starts with embracing process as a friend, not an enemy.
Ultimately, the desert taught me that vision is more than me. It’s bigger than my ambitions and my ideology. Vision involves everyone. It involves togetherness and community. The beauty of dependence, the present, and process gave me a truth that changed the way I look at my role in Washington. I wouldn’t trade that for anything – not even for a stress-free job search.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
Read through the three visions listed in each section of this journal. Which of them challenge you the most in light of your daily work on Capitol Hill? Who do you need to reconnect with to achieve something great, with their help? What do you need to take on, even if it’s hard? What are you learning in the process that you can share with a coworker?
The writer is a Legislative Correspondent in the U.S. Congress.
Photo Credit: Heather Gibbons