The Great Project

I was listening to a podcast about one of my favorite television shows, Gilmore Girls, the other day, and a guest host mused that what drew him to the series was what he saw as its central lesson: “Your great ambition in life can be your life.” Discussing the main character, he said, “The construction of her family, the construction of her community is her great life project, and that is the thing I love about her.”

I was raised in a small town, and I never really appreciated it while I was there. There were legitimate downsides to being raised in a rural, tight-knit community: politics were (vastly) more conservative, often to the point of cruelty and bigotry; cliques at school were more exclusive; gossip was rampant and vicious, and the town lacked resources and diversity. So I had logical reasons for wanting desperately to escape, to go to a good college, to move away and never come back.

But what I overlooked as an angsty, ambitious teen were the privileges of small-town life, the positive characteristics I realize now because they are so lacking in my present daily life. Small towns foster close friendships—facilitate constant access to dozens of people who know you, know your family, and genuinely have your back. Small towns move more slowly—people are content, satisfied, and truly, focused on their families and their communities more than their own self-promotion. People chat with you in the street, at your desk, in line at the grocery store—they’re not in a hurry to be anywhere, and they have their priorities in order. Hospitality abounds in a small town. If you’re visiting, expect a big hug and lots of delicious food. If you’re having a bad day, someone will notice. They’ll ask. People are attuned to the small details, because they have time to absorb them.

People care so deeply about their life projects in a small town. Community theater productions, art shows, county fairs and the like are imbued with heart and passion. I don’t mean to suggest that “city people” can’t be passionate about their work—I’m a city person now, and I certainly am. So are my colleagues. But in a small town, it’s personal. Everything is a labor of love for the people around you.

I’m on a bit of a tangent. The point is, I’ve had this clarification of values recently. I was raised in a small town, and then my first job out of college was working for a newspaper in a rural community in Virginia. And then I left, and moved to the Washington, D.C. area, and got a job in communications. And I love my job; I love my life. I am blessed beyond measure, and acutely aware of it. The move to D.C. was good for me; it was something I had to do. But in a lot of ways, also, it felt merely like something I was supposed to do, something I was supposed to want.

In college, I had similar experiences. I went to a (fairly) prestigious university and everyone around me, it seemed, was endlessly ambitious. I deeply valued my education and was grateful for it—I certainly didn’t want to squander this opportunity that had been granted me, and I worked hard in school. But I didn’t identify, exactly, with the people around me, who seemed to treasure prestige and titles and awards more than the knowledge they were gaining. Everyone stressed over cultivating the perfect resume and achieving the perfect grades. Without those things, how would they snag that internship on the Hill? How would they get a job at a consulting firm? How would they get noticed by CNN or Bloomberg?

I remember, leading up to the summer of my third year, applying for internships. I was a history major and really interested in “storytelling,” broadly, which guided my extracurricular interest in journalism and drove me to apply to summer positions at museums. What I was supposed to do, what I was supposed to want, was a coveted Smithsonian spot. But I had just spent a year volunteering with a small, four-room Aboriginal art museum in my college town, and I felt my work there had been just as meaningful as the work done by the D.C.-based national museums. I ended up interning at Highland—a Presidential house, but a humble one. During tours, we referred to it as the “cabin castle.”

I tried to inject my tours and my research with passion, curiosity, excitement, and above all, meaning. Impact. The stories I was telling mattered, I truly believed that, and they had a measurable, tangible influence on my audience. I remember having dinner with my parents at a Mexican restaurant that summer and saying, maybe I didn’t need a “fancy” internship. Maybe I didn’t want to move to a major metropolitan area after graduation. Maybe there was just as much value, and nobility, and worth in influencing things on a small scale. And maybe, in fact, there was more.

On the one hand, I feel an immense obligation to “use” my education to the greatest extent possible. I know that not everyone had the same doors open to them that I had—I know that globally speaking, I am in the top ten percent, education-wise. I know that having access to my education—my income level, my network of peers and mentors, my perspective—is a privilege, and one I should use to do the “best,” most important work possible; to serve other people. Here’s the thing, though: Is that what I’m doing in D.C., where everyone around me is cut from the same cloth? Where I spend the entire day talking to people who agree with me, who are just as privileged and liberal and educated as I am? (In this case I’m not speaking directly about my job, which deals with rural issues, but to the city more broadly.)

At one point in my life, I said my dream job was writing editorials for the Washington Post. But who’s reading the Post? What audience am I reaching there? Affluent people. Educated people. Many of whom probably already espouse the arguments I would make in print. Is there value in that? I don’t know. I struggle with it. And more than that, I find myself fulfilled by smaller things, smaller victories. My work is important, but it is not my whole life. I think it’s a worthy use of my time to cultivate relationships, canvass for political candidates (meaning knock on doors and meet my neighbors), cook a really great meal, explore a new place, perform community service. I think my life—living it, it in and of itself—is enough. I’m not, necessarily, ambitious for more, and I often feel unsettled and guilty about that fact.

I don’t think I should. I think the great project of my life is allowed to be my life.