“storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” as citizen, tenured faculty, & writing center director

I watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk, “It’s OK to Feel Overwhelmed. Here’s What to Do Next” this past weekend and found many useful reframings of the current situation and inspiring thoughts and advice. At the same time, I was troubled by how white it was, by virtue of it being the thoughts of a wealthy white woman, sitting in her beautiful home without having to worry about paying rent or entertaining/homeschooling children. Gilbert explicitly acknowledges her privilege, pointing out that she’s in a lucky position. I am not taking issue with her at all, or even with any of her advice; I’m just acknowledging that yeah, she is a privileged white woman giving advice that resonated with me, in part because, I, too, am a privileged white woman, and that I’m very uncomfortable with that.

And I think that acknowledging my privilege must also mean living with that discomfort, taking it on actively, inviting it to live in the foreground of my thinking rather than allowing it to recede into the background. This is different from feeling bad about it. Feeling bad about it doesn’t help anyone. Inviting it in lets me use it to guide my decision-making in a deliberate way. Here’s what that looked like today.

I begin each morning by reading that day’s entry in the Dalai Lama’s The Path to Tranquility: Daily Wisdom. The entry for today is

All the problems that every individual meets with in everyday life—famine, unemployment, delinquency, insecurity, psychological deviancy, various epidemics, drugs, madness, despair, terrorism—all that is bound up with the widening gap between people, which, needless to say, can also be found inside the rich countries.

Our ancient experience confirms it at every instant: everything is linked together, everything is inseparable. Consequently the gap has to be reduced.

With Gilbert’s talk on my mind, this entry reminded me of an Indian saying she highlights: “I store my grain in the belly of my neighbor.” Gilbert explains

Western, capitalistic society has taught and trained us to hoard long before this, long before this happened and people were hoarding toilet paper and canned goods. Advertising and the whole capitalist model has taught us scarcity, it’s taught us that you have to be surrounded by abundance in order to safe. The disconnect between those who have and those who have not has never been bigger, and never in my lifetime, and probably in any of our lifetimes, has there been an invitation, again, to release the stranglehold on your hoarding. This is not the time for hoarding. This is the time to store your grain in the belly of your neighbor, in a way that is emotionally sober and accurate to what you can give, and to look at that in a really honest way, to not put your own family in danger, to not put yourself in crisis, but to be able to say, “What can I offer in the immediacy?” And then, in the longer term, a conversation about redistribution of resources, and why do so few have so much and why do so many have so little?

As a financially secure citizen, “storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” at this moment means making a donation to MSU Denver’s Student Emergency Fund, which is available to undocumented students, something very important to me given that Betsy DeVos has specified that undocumented students cannot get federal emergency aid.

As a tenured full professor with white privilege, it means advocating for colleagues in contingent positions. Today specifically it meant emailing one adjunct instructor to ask how they are doing and how I can support them. In the longer term it means continuing to speak out against inequitable labor conditions and exploring funding a professional development program for first year writing instructors on my campus.

As a writing center director, it means forming collaborations with other offices on campus to pool funding rather than compete for funding. Gilbert mentions “unleash[ing] the white-knuckled grip that I have on what’s mine and make sure that I’m going into the world with an open hand.” The next fiscal year is predicted to be quite grim, and I suspect I will want to cling to whatever bit of funding the writing center gets. I want to resist that urge and look for ways to share our funding with other campus offices.

 

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