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Priorities and Privileges in Sobriety.

22 December 2016

Last night there was a man at the meeting for his first time at that meeting. He said he was just at 2,000 days sober, which works out to 5.4 years. He was in a sports-team jersey and looked a bit disheveled. He looked older than his age at 49 years. A lot of us look older than our age. And he described himself as “still homeless”. I don’t know if that means recently, or since the beginning of his sobriety.

He also talked about being in college. He’s working towards his bachelor’s degree. He’s been a tradesman all his life, and is now working on getting a degree (he didn’t say what in), so that he can be a professional (his description). I don’t know which college he’s attending, but he talked about doing an internship this past semester at VFU (EEC’s local Ivy League university). He said it has been the hardest thing he’s ever done, and he got straight As. He has one semester left before graduation.

In the academic world (which I remain on the periphery of), we talk a lot about supporting the “non-traditional” student. Here is a man as non-traditional as they come. Closing in on 50 years old, an alcoholic, homeless. And yet a college took him on. He’s working like hell despite still being homeless. And he’s succeeding.

I’m kind of amazed by his choice of priorities. I can’t imagine making a similar decision; if I were homeless, my first priority would be finding a way to live independently. And as I said, I don’t know his whole story. But I find his incredible dedication admirable. Even if I were not homeless, in a baccalaureate program, and then became homeless, I think I would request a leave of absence to right my situation.

We all choose our priorities. We all decide what to invest ourselves in and divest ourselves of. When I have discussions about personal responsibility and capability with the other incredibly privileged people in academia (yes, I too am incredibly privileged), I routinely hear about what people without privilege can’t do.

I don’t deny for a moment that privilege makes things easier. It does, and I’m proof of that. I’ve succeeded in no small part because of privileges that buoyed me when others would likely have been allowed to sink. But privilege is not the only factor in our successes and failures. And I don’t think it’s even the primary one (well, unless you count significant inherited wealth). I’ve seen too many people with effectively no privileges at all (compared, at least, to the set of humans living in the United States) thrive despite obstacles larger than any I or my compatriots have ever faced.

I have met poor, uneducated, alcoholic and drug-addicted minorities, with felony convictions and non-binary gender identities who have gone on to happy, healthy lives of productivity and utility. They’ve done it by being honest, disciplined, enterprising, and patient. They and many others like them are not hard to find. You can find them in the AA meetings of any major city.

We should tell more of their stories. In addition to working to change the axis of privilege in the United States, and float all our boats higher, we should make positive examples of people who have risen from the darkest shadows of our society – from trouble both earned and unearned – to shine and help others.

I think one consequence of privilege (in some) is to think that only privilege is sufficient to form the basis of a happy and healthy life in America today. It’s not. Go to a meeting. You’ll see.

One Comment leave one →
  1. aimee permalink
    22 December 2016 12:23

    Good for him. He may see graduating as a less difficult achievement than finding a home…. you are totally right that the lack of privilege does not condemn one to a life of poverty or ignorance. Unless you are talking about really drastic circumstances like living in a war zone or something that means opportunities are totally lacking. Some personal conditions like severe mental illness can be impossible to overcome. But in general, usefulness and happiness is available to everyone who wants it and who tries.

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