A word on opportunity guilt

Feb. 8, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

Freed from homework by the holiday, two friends and I made our first trip to the Heart and Home Women’s Shelter on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We arrived at the church—a clean, modern brick building—and were invited into the kitchen through a back door by the staff member on duty. Having cooked most of my own meals back at home, I volunteered to work at the stove, and made an improvised beef chili without salt, pepper or a recipe. I pulled the potatoes from the oven, tossed a salad—lettuce, pepitas and raisins with half a bottle of ranch—and put it all on a cart for the women.

They arrived one at a time through a side door, bundled up in coats and scarves. My friends and I, along with a lead member of the Heart and Home group at Stanford, waited near the door to greet the women as they trickled in. We shook hands, introduced ourselves and recited the night’s menu. Once the whole group was inside, we grabbed our plates, served ourselves from the buffet table and sat down for the meal around two rectangular tables, sharing little stories and learning about each others’ days.

I wish I could say that I was at ease that first night, completely comfortable sitting across the table from women who had, for one reason or another, lost or been kicked out of their homes with little notice. But the weight of our different life circumstances tugged at me, preventing me from being truly authentic. When the women asked about college, my major and my career aspirations, I couldn’t shake the feeling that below the surface, all of us were contemplating the socioeconomic canyon separating us beyond the church walls.

It wasn’t that I’d never been exposed to poverty before. Working at a restaurant the summer before Stanford, I managed to find my way into a romantic relationship with a Guatemalan refugee who lived in a tiny apartment with his sister, brother-in-law and their four children in one of the lower-income pockets of East San Diego. He spoke no English (we conducted our relationship in Spanish), had previously worked in tobacco fields, pine forests and milking cows and was struggling to support his mother back in Guatemala working 16 hours a day, six days a week. I’d seen his poverty up close, how it affected the little aspects of his life day in and day out.

And then I left for college—Stanford University, no less, where I was practically guaranteed a full-time job with twice his annual salary and half the work hours straight out of college. I had always felt guilty about the inequality of our lives but never so much as when I arrived here and realized the gulf between our future opportunities. At Stanford, I have the potential and resources to do nearly anything with my future. He, on the other hand, will forever be limited to manual labor and low-wage work. Upward mobility is a dream for his children’s generation, not himself.

At the homeless shelter, I felt a similar pang of shame and distress at the magnitude of my opportunities compared to theirs. But I also knew that feeling was fruitless, if not selfish—worrying about my own guilt was ultimately a self-indulgent narrative, not an empathetic connection with the women we served. Yes, there was an underlying inequality in that room that I could probably never understand in its fullest sense. But there were also twelve people eating dinner and having a friendly, lively conversation, happy to be with company and a half-decent plate of beef chili.

I went back to the shelter again last week, this time with my guitar to share a few songs with the women. I’d played at retirement homes in high school and was excited to bring back some of my favorite classic songs to a new audience. Unlike at the retirement homes, the women sang along with a jubilant spirit that made me appreciate music in a way I never quite had before. Despite the hardship and the injustice, there was the desire to enjoy life in the moment, to sing along to its music.

Coming to terms with the Stanford bubble and all it entails has been, and will continue to be, a process for many of us, especially those of us who grew up with significant opportunity. I believe that process begins with getting out of our own heads for a moment and recognizing that privilege-guilt is merely a psychological sickness, not a remedy for injustice. To the extent possible, I will try to rid myself of self-indulgent worries and focus my energies instead on making the world a better, fairer place in the ways I can—by going back to the shelter, working towards a social-impact career and being a kind person along the way.

No amount of shame will undo inequality, but some amount of goodness can tip the scales back towards a more equitable, kind society. Don’t feel bad; just do good.

Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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