Beyond Catholic Guilt

I'm Staying in the Non-Profit World Because I Want To

It took me by surprise when my two very successful cousins, who both recently graduated from law school, said to me, “You’re going to have to stop doing this volunteer stuff because you’re making us look like money-loving consumer freaks.”

In a way, this statement affirmed my decision to stay another year (instead of going to grad school) at Campus for Human Development, the homeless adult day center in Nashville, TN, where I’ve worked the past year as a Jesuit Volunteer. And it put down their decision to be lawyers.

Catholic guilt?

But I think they missed the point. What I’ve come to realize this year is that it is important that we just do what we need to do to make it, try to do what makes us happy.

The non-profit myth
In other words, I stayed at Campus because it’s what I want to do. I’m learning more about myself and the world than I ever imagined. In fact, it was a semi-selfish move to stay.

Just because I work at a non-profit does not mean I’m going to fulfill the perceptions often associated with non-profit work: I’m not going to solve the world’s problems, “help people,” get homeless people permanently off the streets (because that’s my ideal and not theirs), or that I’m doing Nashville a bigger favor than I would be if I worked in a law or engineering office.

I know that Analese and Kate are doing a hell of a good job being lawyers: they’re honest, they work hard, they enjoy what they do, and they’re a positive, ethical presence at their firms.

Comparative vs contributive identity
Its dangerous to play the comparison game. Its dangerous to say, “I shouldn’t complain because I’ve got it better than that homeless person,” or, “I should work at a non-profit because its more admirable than working in a law office.”

Rather, when I recognize my talents and use them to contribute to the day-in and day-out life of myself and others, then being a corporate lawyer, a case manager, or a homeless person aren’t so different. Then I can can think in terms of “us” instead of “me and them,” because we are all doing what we need to do to make it through the day.

And hopefully I don’t make it harder for myself or anyone else.