6 things I learned during my first summer as a college graduate

It’s been bittersweet saying goodbye to so many friends in the last week. Walla Walla is losing some wonderful people as the Class of 2014 heads off into the world, but I’m excited to see where the amazing and talented people I got to know at Whitman go from here.

I remember graduating a year ago – that sentence terrifies me slightly – and struggling to find footholds during my first few month of post-graduate freedom, so I thought I’d list a few things I learned during that transition period.

I’m not preaching to anyone here – you do you – and my experiences are to a degree particular to getting a job immediately post-grad instead of traveling or going to grad school. And it’s very possible all of this stuff is really obvious and I’m just slow on the uptake. But if you’re wondering “did anyone else feel like this?” or not sure where to start, maybe this will help.

1) Sleep debt is really, really real.

You’ve  probably spent the past four years not getting a lot of sleep. If your senior year was at all like mine, the past few months were probably especially bad. Two nights of conking out for 12 hours once you get home aren’t going to make that up.

It took me weeks of getting good sleep consistently before I stopped feeling exhausted all the time. So don’t skimp on making up your sleep debt now that you have the time.

This goes for anything else related to your wellbeing that you put off while you were in school. If you stopped exercising or eating healthy food or neglected a bunch of cavities, now is the time to straighten that shit out. Get in the habit of taking care of yourself.

2) If you approach real life like college, you’ll burn out in three months

In college, I evaluated my workload by asking myself, “Can I survive this for three months?” Overachievers of the world know the pattern: you load up on classes, extracurriculars and more, run yourself into the ground for a semester, and then get winter/summer break to recuperate.

Adult jobs do not work like this. Working at the pace you set for yourself in college is a surefire way to feel exhausted, miserable and undervalued three months into your first job. Take a deep breath. Slow down.

Focus on building relationships with coworkers, setting long-term goals and working at a steady pace. You have more than one semester to make the difference you want to make in whatever organization you’re part of.

3) Rejection is normal. And it sucks.

If you’re entering the workforce, you will apply for 10 jobs you’re qualified for, and none of them will take the time to email or call you to tell you you didn’t the the job. It sucks. It just does. There’s no sugarcoating how hard it is to put a lot of work into something, get yourself excited for it, and get let down. Especially if you’re unemployed, or you hate your current job, or all your friends seem to be doing fine.

There’s no silver bullet here, but know you’re not alone in this. Your wildly successful friends were turned down for internships. I’ve been rejected for every job and internship I’ve applied for since graduating. Find people who can remind you that you’re still amazing. Find friends who’ve been through the same thing and will buy you dinner or a drink or a movie ticket when it happens to you. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, job-wise, whether that’s training yourself for a new skill or taking up a career as an activist to make the economy suck less (we’ll all thank you for that one).

4) Feeling socially isolated is normal. And it sucks too.

It’s rough to go from living half a mile (at most) away from all your friends to a city where you might not know anyone (or where the people you do know are spread out and busy). College makes socializing easy by forcing you to meet new people all the time and facilitating a never-ending stream of events and parties to go to. You might start out your adult life without a lot of friends nearby, and that can lead to loneliness really quickly.

That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to having no social life, but…

5) Finding friends might look different than what you’re used to

The single best way I’ve found to meet people in a new place is by doing stuff. Volunteering and doing roller derby have all given me opportunities to get to know people and fill the social holes that were created when all my friends evaporated after graduating.

Doing an activity takes a bunch of the pressure off of chatting with someone casually to see if you get along, and it also exposes you to a much bigger and more diverse group of people. If skating isn’t your thing, try finding Meetup groups for common interests, becoming a regular at a bar or restaurant (if you can afford it), joining a gym, taking a class or just asking coworkers to go out for a drink after work.

It’s going to take more work than you’re used to, and it might feel awkward. It helps to remind yourself that most humans enjoy being social, and most people your age are looking for friends or people to hang out with. So don’t be afraid to get someone’s number, invite them over or otherwise express an interest in Becoming Friends. You won’t die, I promise.

Be open to friendships with people you might not have interacted with much before graduating. School tends to segregate people by age, but once you’re out, you’ll end up befriending people several decades older than you who come from all kinds of different backgrounds. Embrace it.

6) You might enjoy having less of a social life

Senior year, I felt a lot of pressure to Do Stuff With People, because all of us were operating with the knowledge that in a few months, we’d scatter to the winds and never again have the opportunity to go camping/watch a movie together/climb the WWCC dome/get ice cream.

Having a whirlwind set of social opportunities is fun, but after graduating, I’ve also come to enjoy not feeling like I’m missing a bunch of fantastic opportunities every weekend if I don’t go out. If you find yourself, by choice or circumstance, in a less social place, that’s okay. Rediscover your love of young adult literature (hello, summer of 2013) or knitting or some other hobby you totally stopped doing in college because you ran out of time. Get back in shape. Write poetry. Tackle your Netflix queue. There’s a lot you can do solo with your newfound freedom, even if you’re working full time.

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Trigger warnings are not the end of academic freedom, I promise

(Content warning: brief mention of domestic violence and sexual assault.)

My junior year of college, my Environmental Communication class spent an afternoon discussing the pros and cons of a shock value approach to advertising for environmental causes. Our professor put together a slideshow including a number of ads as examples. Many of them were from the animal-rights group PETA, which often poses women as animals (for instance, in cages) to make points about animal abuse.

I don’t remember the exact nature of every image we looked at, but one of them involved a woman who had been severely beaten–a close-up of her face with bruising, blood and the whole nine yards. It was realistic, graphic, and it was huge, sitting larger-than-life on the whiteboard while we kept the discussion going.

That image came less than a week after I’d gotten a call from someone I care about very much. I can’t and won’t repeat the specifics of what she told me through sobs, but it boiled down to this: she was in the hospital because her husband had left her covered in bruises the night before.

I don’t consider myself a fragile person, though goodness knows I have my days, just like everyone else. But seeing that face larger-than-life on the board, while we talked about it in the most unemotional terms possible was, to put it mildly, agonizing. My chest tightened. I flashed back to our conversation, and to conversations like it I’ve had with so many people I care about. I kept seeing the faces of people I loved projected onto this bruised woman’s face. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I thought about getting up, saying something, but I didn’t know what I would say, so I sat there.

Eventually, I got my reaction under control with some deep breaths and asked the professor, after class, if he wouldn’t mind giving us a heads-up if we was going to show images like that in the future. He said sure and seemed concerned, sensing that something was wrong, but didn’t ask me any questions. The issue never came up in that class again.

I’m telling this story because lately, a lot of people have been writing about trigger warnings. If you’re unfamiliar, a trigger warning is a note (in written or verbal form) that some piece of content might contain something which could trigger a panic or post-traumatic stress disorder type reaction in someone else. They’re often seen on graphic descriptions or images of violence, abuse or sexual assault and are commonly found in some spaces online. They’ve also started migrating to the classroom, with students at some colleges requesting content warnings in syllabuses (for example, for books with graphic rape scenes in them). This last bit is something Jenny Jarvie at the New Republic (and many other writers over the past few weeks) have taken issue with:

What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.

I get that for people who don’t hang out on the social justice-oriented parts of Tumblr, the pervasiveness of trigger warnings might seem unnecessary, amusing, or even threatening. The syntax of written warnings– “tw: rape” or “tw: abuse” stuck at the beginning of an article–seems to lend itself to mockery. And trigger warnings, as they’ve evolved, aren’t perfect. Some people dilute the original intentions of trigger warnings by using them mockingly or to denote ideas that the author finds personally offensive (eg. tw: Republicans). For people with highly specific  phobias or triggers to everyday objects, it’s probably not possible to configure the world in a way that ensures they never come face to face with something that’s going to set them off. There are legitimate concerns related to censorship and academic freedom when the issue at hand is whether or not students should be able to opt out of triggering material. These are all issues and concerns worth discussing.

I take issue, though, with the critics who think triggers are about being “offended,” or that they signify some sort of unwillingness to confront tough issues head on. The day we looked at those images in my Environmental Comm class was in the middle of one of my hardest semesters of college. I’d been doing interviews with sexual assault victims and eating disorder survivors for the school paper–work that would later end with me being treated for PTSD because I kept flashing back to memories of other people’s worst nightmares. I had several close family members going through their own experiences of sexual assault and domestic violence. I had spent an entire semester confronting some of the worst kinds of trauma I know of head-on, carefully rationing my brain’s ability to absorb more violent images and awful stories. And on days like that, one more thing I wasn’t counting on could be enough to cause a panic attack or flashback.

There are those would say that that’s on me, and it is. It’s on me to walk out of the room, to close my eyes, look away, to get a note from the counselor excusing me from class for the day, or whatever. But I can’t do that if no one tells me what to expect. To suggest that people with triggers need to get over them is essentially to suggest that I can or should get over a slew of mental illnesses instantaneously over the course of a single class period. We understand bodies don’t work that way, which is why we have allergy warnings in dining halls: people can’t just make themselves un-allergic to nuts. Brains don’t work that way either.

Some anti-trigger warning people have said that you can’t deal with your triggers by avoiding them. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case, learning how to deal with trauma without dissociating or having a panic attack was an important part of healing. But that was a long process, and one that was best done with the help of trained therapists, not in the middle of a discussion in class. Even if our end goal is to help people deal with their triggers, warnings can help smooth that process over, let people deal with mental illness at their own pace and give people time to prepare themselves. If my professor had said, “Hey, just so you know, there are a few graphic images in this slide show,” I would have been able to prepare myself mentally, to take some deep breaths before we started, and know that I was in an environment where the professor would likely sympathize if I needed to step out for a minute.  A similar warning on a book (“FYI, there’s a graphic rape scene in this week’s reading”) allows people like me to make an informed choice about when to do that reading–maybe not right after interviewing another survivor, maybe not right after the sobbing phone call from a cousin or a friend who’s just been sexually assaulted.

The phrase “trigger warning” might be a newish one, culturally, but the concept really isn’t. We rate movies and give reasons for those ratings, presumably so someone considering watching “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” can make an informed decision about whether they want to see a film containing “brutal violent content including rape and torture.” Most media outlets that published Boston Marathon bombing photos put a warning above or before them to tell readers that they were particularly graphic and violent. Our culture has evolved a lot of ways to tell people, “Hey, this is some pretty heavy shit you’re about to look at, so if you want to do something else now, here’s your chance.”  It’s simply a way to give people tools to avoid topics that might be (a little, a lot) more than they’re able to handle on a given day, for reasons that are far more outside people’s control than simply “being offended.” I would hope that’s something everyone can get behind.

What else we can talk about when we talk about travel

My post earlier today about Nick Kristof’s column on travel was mostly critique, and because it bugs me when people critique stuff without offering solutions, I thought I’d offer a few.

One, I’d like to see people (not just Kristof) acknowledge other, less sexy ways of promoting global citizens and multiculturalism, especially alongside their writing about the virtues of travel. Perhaps I’m jaded from all the study abroad program marketing I was subjected to as a student, but I think you can do a lot in the U.S. to foster some of the same goals on a community, not an individual, level.

He’s right that learning Spanish is a hugely important thing, so let’s get more elementary school students in Spanish immersion programs (or Chinese, or Arabic, or really any other language) and stop treating foreign language courses as optional electives to be started in middle school or later (or not at all). Let’s have conversations about sustaining diverse neighborhoods in major American cities and creating community events and spaces where people from different racial, ethnic and religious background will interact regularly.

I’m willing to concede that travel brings a certain perspective and immediateness to a lot of things that aren’t possible in another context, but I think we can all agree that not everyone is going to study abroad or take a gap year. If we’re serious about an aware and engaged citizenry, I don’t think individual choices to see the world aren’t enough to get us there. I also don’t think people unable to travel for whatever reason should be left out of those benefits when they’re attainable in other ways.

And for those who do want to travel but don’t feel they’re quite able to? A lot of the issues I brought up, like the racism, sexual harassment or fear of violence some people might face while traveling isn’t really a problem one individual (even someone as big as Nick Kristof) can solve, especially not overnight. But I do think people who feel strongly that everyone should travel can help their case by trying to break down some of those barriers. (I also want to see people talking about these issues when they talk about travel, not as a follow-up or afterthought.) Kristof suggests colleges offering a semester of credit for a gap year, which is a cool idea (though one some of my professors might take some issue with). A lot of other people are going to have better ideas than these ones (and I’d love to hear them), but here are a few of mine:

  • Get creative with ideas to pay for the “little costs” of travel: things like visas and medication that add up. Maybe colleges could collect frequent flier miles from school-sponsored travel and use it to fund tickets for students in need. Maybe campus health centers could bulk-buy malaria meds and hand them out at free or reduced cost for students studying abroad.
  • Wherever possible, highlight no-cost opportunities for travel, not just stuff with free room and board. I’d also love to see people advocating for the creation of more all-inclusive opportunities like that, especially ones that aren’t tied to heavily to U.S. foreign policy objectives and/or long periods of commitment (the Peace Corps is awesome, but not for everyone).
  • Colleges often charge equal tuition to students studying abroad even when their programs cost less than regular tuition would. That seems unfair, but consider that at least some (including my alma mater) do this because they lose money paying out financial aid packages in cash to study abroad programs. There’s no magic bullet for this, but a serious conversation about getting more students to study abroad needs to talk about financial aid and college affordability in general.
  • Don’t pretend everyone can travel in the same ways. Be aware of which countries are especially risky for LGBT people or inaccessible for people with disabilities and highlight resources to help people who want to do so navigate those challenges instead of just telling them to go elsewhere. (This is motivating me to start a resource list, so if you have a suggestion, let me know.)

 

New Year’s goals

It’s been pointed out to me that I’m weird for differentiating between goals and resolutions, but here we are. I like goals to be specific and achievable things, and resolutions often seem to be general enough that they’re hard to measure (eg. “Be nicer to my family” or “Exercise more”).

My 2013 goal was to read one fiction book each month, something Goodreads tells me I achieved rather nicely. That modest success has inspired me to be a bit more ambitious in 2014, especially now that college is no longer taking up so much of my time. So, here’s what I’m holding myself to in 2014.

1) Clear my print magazine backlog.
Ever since I studied abroad in the fall of 2011, I’ve had a backlog of my copies of Mother Jones, High Country News, The Sun, Bitch and Orion stretching back between 6 and 18 months and taking up almost a quarter of my bookshelf. By the end of 2014, I will be no more than one issue behind on each magazine. This goal is being made partially because those magazines present more of an obstacle than they should to moving, and I’d like to not cart them with me to my next home, wherever that may be.

2) Listen to one good music album in its entirety each month.
My musical taste is all over the place and often very passive: I hear things on the radio or from friends’ music collections, say “Hey, that song is good” and go acquire it. It’s rare for me to seek out new music or listen to complete albums, whether they’re new releases or classic works. But Beyonce’s surprise album has reminded me that some music is really worth listening to as part of a complete album, and that I’d do well to broaden my tastes intentionally every so often. So, each month, I will find a well-regarded or critically acclaimed album that’s new to me, acquire the whole thing and listen to it consciously and deliberately.

3) Build a website.
I want to put my HTML and CSS to good use doing an actual project that’s for me, not for work or some fictitious company invented by Treehouse. My only rules are that said website require HTML and CSS and that I do all the coding myself—no using complete CSS frameworks, though I may borrow and copy.

4) Put together a working professional website
This could be the same project as the one above, but by the end of the year, I want a real professional website that I had a significant role in designing and building myself. Something with a blog on a subdomain (probably my journalism Tumblr), links to articles and a space for me to upload my own projects, like the I made this year.

5) Participate in 365 in Focus, a group photoblog project.
A friend of mine invited me to participate in a 365, where you take one photo everyday for a year. We’re doing it group-accountability style, with 120 or so of us contributing to a group Tumblr. By this time next year, I will have 365 photos that I like up on the group blog. Some will be shots showing life in Walla Walla, some will be just about my life and a few will actually be good photos.

How I accidentally developed an eating disorder

This is a personal thing I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while for a couple of different reasons. I may follow up later and talk about some of the other mental health stuff I went through last year, but I wanted to get this part out.

(Trigger warning: disordered eating/anorexic behavior)

Last year was my senior year of college. Like most academic years in my life, I started out wanting to see how far I could go before I broke myself. I’m a quintessential overachiever and I have trouble saying no to things, so I’m usually pretty busy and definitely enjoy having a hectic schedule. Generally I start a year off with a lot going on, figure out what I’m really enjoying and drop a few things once I decide how busy I actually want to be.

Senior year, however, I quickly veered into unhealthy territory. I was working at editor-in-chief of a college newspaper, which ate up at least 30 hours per week and often more than 40. More than the hours it took, it was one of those jobs that required you to be constantly available, on call, checking your email and just thinking about it, which takes a toll on your brain and can cause a lot more stress than just working long hours. On top of that, I started a 20 hour per week job at the daily newspaper in town, which required me to work early mornings after late nights of newspaper layout. With a full-time and a part-time job sucking up most waking hours, I also still had class—not a lot of it, to be fair, but I was writing an honors thesis, taking one of the hardest politics classes offered at my school, and doing a few other miscellaneous things that ate up my time.

One result of this was that I rarely had time to eat. Mornings were get up and go—I might have an egg before I ran off to work, but as I got busier, even that was hard to do. I started eating most of my meals at our student cafe, which basically serves fries and burgers. Being a vegetarian, I ended up having fries and onion rings for dinner a few nights a week, and grabbing a sandwich at the local sandwich shop once of twice on top of that. Between those purchases, haphazard snacking and getting invited to dinners all over campus, I could survive without ever really cooking.

Gradually, my body got used to this kind of diet. I considered it a good day of food when I had two eggs for breakfast and a large sandwich for lunch and dinner (half for lunch, half for dinner), plus maybe a snack sometime in the evening. It was not uncommon for me to work sixteen hour days on under 1000 calories. I still got hungry, but my body stopped screaming for food if I didn’t feed it. After an hour or two, it would quiet down and let me work in peace.

As my body adjusted, I started associating my diet with strength. I took pride in being able to get so much done without eating as much as I knew, somewhere deep down, that I should. And I convinced myself it wasn’t a problem (certainly not a capital-D Disorder), because I would gladly eat whatever was in front of me if it was convenient—four slices of pizza on newspaper production night, something full of calories while out with friends. The fact that I had lost about fifteen pounds was something I saw as a nice side benefit. My cheekbones looked great, my stomach was flat, and I wasn’t even trying.

I’ve never had an issue with food, really (which I think makes me a rare 22 year old woman), and I’d never thought of myself as having issues with my body compared to just about every other woman (and some men) I knew. And because of that, I didn’t think I could have an eating disorder. I read young adult books about anorexia and learned that eating disorders meant dropping down to 90 pounds and having heart irregularities. Fifteen pounds in four months didn’t seem worth worrying over. Nothing I was doing fit my image of what an eating disorder was, and because of that, I thought I didn’t have anything to worry about.

Anyone rational who stopped to put the pieces together could tell you that what I was doing wasn’t healthy or sustainable. I knew I couldn’t live my life like this forever, but figured I’d hold out until the end of the year and be fine. Everything I was doing became part of a marathon, a death-march of endurance towards graduation, with me constantly betting my health and sanity that I could walk across that stage with a diploma before I collapsed. I did have friends who tried to remind me, gently, to eat, but since I didn’t have a roommate and didn’t spend a ton of time with any one person, it was hard for people to keep tabs on me. Even my boyfriend, who I slept with just about every night, would only see me for one or two waking hours on many days and with his own schedule being busy, he couldn’t be expected to keep track of whether I was eating.

My eating disorder started out functionally, as a way to compensate for my busy schedule, but it quickly took on a life of its own. Like so many other problems and health issues, it became self-reinforcing. And I was so caught up in the idea of suffering until graduation that I didn’t even notice this was happening.

My first clue that I wasn’t okay should have been when my already fussy stomach became impossible. Between the stress of my jobs and my lack of food (and often water), I would wake up with stomach and back pain at 6:30 or 7 a.m. almost every morning. I had random stabbing stomach pains, duller aches and vague feelings of nausea and unsettledness which I woke up with and which made me literally terrified to eat breakfast. Some mornings, the thought of trying to decide what to eat for breakfast would make me start hyperventilating with panic, which meant that I more or less stopped eating more than two bites of breakfast ever for about a month. That panic extended to attempts to prepare food for myself. Even when I had free time, I would come home to discover a fridge full of random items acquired on a whim, half of which were rotting and none of which could be combined into a suitable meal. I couldn’t justify shopping and buying more food when I had so much, but I could rarely put the puzzle pieces of ingredients together into something that sounded edible. More often than not, I had a taco or two and called it good.

With all this, it took until I blacked out in my friend’s shower (I’d been up for four or five hours with no food and no water, and the heat from the shower made me woozy) for me to realize that I had a problem and needed help. I had friends sign up to eat meals with me for an entire week, because the idea of cooking anything or planning food was so terrifying at that point that I couldn’t handle it. I had more or less forgotten how to feed myself, and if told I had to eat lunch or dinner and couldn’t just go buy a sandwich, I’d end up staring at the food in my fridge in confusion, then sitting on the kitchen floor almost crying because I just didn’t understand how to make a meal. I felt weak constantly and rarely had a day where I didn’t feel lightheaded as soon as I stood up. My body seemed frail to me in a way it never had before, and the idea of exercising or doing anything physical genuinely scared me, because I wasn’t sure I was in a condition to do anything challenging without hurting myself further.

I got better, with some real talk and tons of help from my friends. My stomach got better at eating normal amounts of food instead of being full after three bites of lunch, and I re-learned (with some stress in my life removed) how to cook, go shopping for food and take better care of myself. I stopped feeling like I was always on the verge of collapse, and starting playing tennis again. I got better, though it took months for me to feel that my body was really back to normal.

Looking back, what stands out to me is how much my ideas about what an eating disorder is and should be ended up hurting me. I assumed that, in order to have an anorexia-type eating disorder, I had to be consciously trying to lose weight or eat a certain (small) amount of food. I thought that if I didn’t lose tens of pounds over the course of a month or two, it didn’t count. After reading accounts of people who had been rushed to the hospital with heart failure from lack of food, I didn’t think symptoms like general weakness, exhaustion, stomach pain and constant lightheadedness counted. I thought if I knew that what I was feeding myself wasn’t enough, it wasn’t an eating disorder. I thought it couldn’t be real if I wasn’t in it to lose weight. I thought I was just genuinely too busy to eat.

I’ve never been formally diagnosed with an eating disorder, and I think whether I “officially” had one is beside the point. I know many people struggle with anorexia, bulimia and other disorders for years, and that what I experienced last year is relatively mild by comparison. Whether you’d call this an ED or not, though, it’s clear to me in retrospect that I was eating in a disordered and unhealthy way, and in a way that could have had a lot of more serious consequences.

I’m sharing this, I think, because I want people to know that even if your suffering or struggle doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria in a textbook, or your image of what a problem looks like, it doesn’t mean that it’s not real or important. I want to remind friends out there to take care of each other, and to know that even if someone is okay or thinks they are, an offer to cook a meal and share food with someone who’s struggling can mean so, so much. And I want to thank everyone in my life who gave up an afternoon to make sure I was fed, and who helped me get to a place where I can write this all down.

House of Representatives to environment: Screw you, secure the borders.

The House of Representatives just passed HR 2578, an omnibus piece of legislation including HR 1505, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. The final vote was 232-188, with most Democrats opposed and most Republicans in favor. The roll call vote tally is here.

This sneakily named bill gives the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to manage federal lands within 100 miles of both the U.S.-Canada border and the U.S.-Mexico border. This power is an expansion of Section 102 of the Real ID Act, passed in 2005, which gives the DHS Secretary authority to waive any federal laws during the construction of border enforcement structures, including the border wall. Because of that act, all major pieces of environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (which mandates review of all environmental projects) and the Endangered Species Act have been waived during border wall construction and other border enforcement activities. Perhaps most insidiously, the law explicitly states that DHS waivers cannot be subjected to judicial review.

HR 2578 would extend essentially the same powers to all federal lands within 100 miles of either U.S. land border. It prohibits the Secretary of the Interior (responsible for National Parks and Bureau of Land Management Land) and the Secretary of Agriculture (National Forests) from interfering with Customs and Border Protection activities within this 100-mile area.

Let me say that again, really clearly. This law gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive all environmental legislation within 100 miles of U.S. land borders.

Apparently, it’s not good enough that our border enforcement is killing hundreds of people every year. We also have to make sure that things like preserving wilderness areas don’t interfere with catching and deporting people trying to make it to the U.S. And lest you think this is about border security–the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol have stated that this law is unnecessary for border security. The current system of interagency land management is working just fine for them.

The Senate still has to vote on this (it’s S.803, introduced by Arizona Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain). You can read up on the bill here, get the Sky Island Alliance’s talking points here (PDF), and go hereto take action and contact your Representatives and Senators.

Humanitarian aid as an atheist

Out here on the border, social change and spirituality seem to be closely linked. Almost all of the migrant aid centers on both sides of the line are organized by churches, and while the group I’m with, No More Deaths, is secular, it has its roots in Tucson’s Unitarian Church and Catholic liberation theology. This is nothing odd—there’s a long history of religion inspiring social work and activism. Jesus was pretty clear about that whole “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” thing, and there have been no shortage of church-organized homeless shelters, Catholic orphanages and some pretty radical priests talking shit about capitalism since then. Worldwide, it’s not all Christians, either, and if I were better informed about other religion, I’m sure I could come up with dozens of other examples from all over. The desire to help the less fortunate in the world is often seen as a key part of a deep spiritual calling.

My companions for these two weeks are all Christian. I’m with one other No More Deaths volunteer—a Unitarian minister from Georgia named Jeff—and the shelter we’re working with is run by a guy named Phil who lives here in Agua Prieta and is Episcopalian. I asked Phil yesterday about the preponderance of faith-based aid out here, and told me that in his experience, people who don’t come from a faith tradition tend to burn out doing this work faster.

“Why?” I asked him.

“I think it’s hard to deal with the suffering out here without some way to make sense of it,” he said.

He’s not wrong. Last time I was on the border, I was out in the desert putting out water and food for migrants crossing. I went out there expecting to find tragedy, a misguided series of policies which united in a particularly deadly way in the Altar Valley of southern Arizona. What I found instead was deliberate cruelty, overt racism and a series of policies which were explicitly designed to funnel people into the desert, knowing they would die there. Many No More Deaths facilitators describe the Arizona borderlands as a low-intensity war zone, and that’s how I felt during the brief time I was there.

When I went home, it was hard to process all of this. I withdrew from my friends and spent a lot of time drinking while trying to write about what I’d seen. I had days where I couldn’t fathom the thought of being happy, because it seemed so wrong, knowing what I’d seen, knowing that what I had seen was such a small chunk of the whole picture. And I absolutely had nights where, lying in bed with tears running down my face, I thought, “I really wish I believed in God right now. I wish I had some way to convince myself that this would all be okay.”

That’s the thing about being an atheist. Because I don’t believe in God, I also don’t believe in absolute justice. I believe all kinds of evil people die and get away with the evil things they did. I don’t think Ted Bundy and Adolf Hitler are spending eternity in hell being punished for the lives they took—they’re just dead. I don’t think those who have been made to suffer in this life have any greater reward waiting for them, and I don’t think the scales balance in the end. The suffering I see on the border isn’t part of God’s plan or the result of our sin. It’s just awfully, cruelly wrong.

For me, knowing there’s nothing after death makes fighting for this world all the more important. Religion was used in the Middle Ages (and still is by some people today) to justify poverty, to keep the poor from rebelling by telling them that if they just stayed quiet and accepted their fate, they’d be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams once they got to heaven. I would argue that religion still fulfills that function in many parts of the world, at least for some people. For me, this world is all we have, so we’d better make damn sure it’s a good one for everyone. We’re not going to get a second chance. There’s no heaven waiting for us, nothing perfect after we die, so it’s that much more important to keep working towards a better earth.

It’s this thought that keeps me going, and it’s that thought that’s going to make these weeks a challenge. I think partially because of their belief in the afterlife, a lot of Christian work is centered around aid and charity. Feed the poor. House the homeless. Minimize suffering. Run a shelter. Here in Agua Prieta, I’m going to be working in a shelter which provides services to migrants who have just been deported. It’s important work, and I’m grateful that people are doing it. Putting water in the desert is important, life-saving work, too. But none of it gets at the structural, the systems that make these things necessary in the first place. Food banks are awesome, but anyone who thinks they’re solving hunger or poverty is naive at best.

This is the challenge of activism in the world today, and it’s all the more stark for those of us who think that death is just death. We need to make sure people have food today and migrants have a place to get medical care today. But if that’s all we do, we’re not making any progress. We have to find some way to make life better, measurably, systematically. I don’t know what that looks like yet, and I don’t know if the next two weeks will give me many ideas. What I do know is that as long as this wall is here, as long as we build our nation on racism, exclusion and the backs of poor people the world over, what we’re doing is absolutely, unequivocally wrong. It’s because of, not in spite of, my atheism that I feel called to work for as long as I need to to change that.