Here’s a Quarter

Many years ago — actually about a quarter of a century ago — I had applied for the job of Student Ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. The job of the Ombudsperson was to help students navigate the bureaucracy of the university, and to help them get their concerns heard when the usual channels weren’t working. It was a job where I got to problem-solve and advocate for people, and that appealed to me.

One part of the process for being considered for the job was an interview with a selection committee, which featured members of the faculty, administration and student body, who asked me (and presumably the other candidates) questions and offered hypothetical issues to resolve. It was during one of the hypotheticals, the details of which are not especially important, that I was confronted with a hypothetical student who simply wouldn’t be happy with any outcome. So, like this:

Q: A student comes with “X” problem. How would you resolve it?

A: I would do “Y”, and here’s why [explain why].

Q: Okay, but they’re not happy with that solution. What do you do then?

A: Then I would try “Z,” and here’s why [explain why].

Q: Okay, but they’re still not happy. Now what?

A: Well, then let’s try “Q,” because [explain why].

Q: They’re still not happy.

A: Fine, I would try “K,” because [explain why].

“Okay,” my interviewer then said, “But they’re still not happy with your solution or your efforts. What do you do then?”

“I give them a quarter to call someone who cares,” I said. “Because at that point it’s clear they’re more interested in being upset than anything else, and I have other work to do.”

Yes, I actually did say that (or something very close to it; it was 25 years ago and I didn’t record it).

And yes, I got the job.

Here’s the thing: I believe that we owe our fellow human beings a certain amount of compassion and courtesy and respect, and to listen to their complaints and grievances. We should ask ourselves whether those complaints and grievances are valid, and whether we can help — and in some cases, ask whether we are the author of those grievances, and if so what we can do to resolve them.

But I also believe that after a certain point, it may become obvious that some people just want to complain, or to be angry, or to be an asshole, or whatever, and that nothing a reasonable person can do will ever make those people happy or satisfied. So you give them a quarter, metaphorically or otherwise, and tell them to call someone who cares. Because you have other things to do. And then you go on doing those things you need to do.

They won’t be happy, but then they were never going to be happy, and it’s not your responsibility to fix their problem — “their problem” not being whatever specific complaint or grievance they might have, but a worldview that requires them to always have a complaint or grievance, and/or to believe that the root of that complaint is somehow about you. That’s something for therapy, perhaps, not for you, or anyone else who isn’t getting paid by the session.

You should be a kind and compassionate person to others when they have a problem or grievance. You should also know when it’s a problem you can’t solve, and also, when the person doesn’t actually want the problem to be solved. It’s neither kind nor compassionate to them or to you to keep being involved after that point. And to be sure, after you’ve given them their quarter, they will likely complain that you are a terrible person, and/or part of a conspiracy to keep them down, and so on and so forth. That’s their karma, not yours.

I was and am pretty proud of my time as Student Ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. I ended up helping a good number of people, and making sure that the students could get their voices heard. But I never forgot that part of the reason I got the job is because they knew I knew where to draw a line. It was a useful skill in that job. It continues to be useful to me today.

The Big Idea: Sarah Prineas

Happily Ever After… but why? And to ultimately what end? Author Sarah Prineas considers this in Ash & Bramble, and she’s not the only one who asks.

SARAH PRINEAS:

The story of Ash & Bramble, which is more an exploded fairytale than a retelling, arose out of two Big Idea questions.

The first question came out of this experience I had back in grad school when I was reading a lot of Marxist theory and joined a student group that staged a sit-in to protest that the university basically relied on sweatshop labor to produce school-mascot t-shirts and hats and backpacks. What I learned was that our stuff comes from somewhere.  We don’t have fairy godmothers who wave their wands and new t-shirts appear, wallah!—even though shopping online can be like that. But no, an underpaid, overworked laborer somewhere far away from where you live probably made the clothes you are wearing right now. She made the clothes I am wearing right now, too (pajamas from Target).

That led me to wonder: there’s all this stuff in fairytales: a dancing slipper made of glass.  A poisoned apple. A sharpened spindle. A glass coffin. And of course, the gorgeous, glittering ball gowns.

So where do all of those story elements come from? Who makes it? I mean, there’s no amazon.com in Fairytalandia, and the stuff has to come from somewhere, right?

The logical conclusion is that the Godmother has a kind of fairytale version of a sweatshop, full of shoemakers, bakers-of-gingerbread, lace-makers, Jacks-of-all-trades, seamstresses…

My stitches march on, inevitable, a straggling, wandering line of foot soldiers, with here and there a casualty where I accidentally prick my finger on the needle and the tiny bead of blood is blotted by the cloth. My fingertips ache; my hands grow stiff. 

The seamstress of Ash & Bramble is the one person who dares look up from her work and ask, “what is all this stuff for?”

The answer is, it’s for Story. And this Story gains power every time it gets another Happily-Ever-After.  It’s the Godmother’s job to set stories up, to get the wheel turning by forcing people to play their designated roles, to provide the spindles, the glass slippers, the etcetera.

And our seamstress—her name is Pin, as far as she knows—to stop her from asking dangerous questions, the Godmother decides to put her into one of Story’s most powerful stories, Cinderella. According to Story, Pin is supposed to want the gorgeous gown, the prince, the insta-love, the marriage. Except for Pin, the glass slipper doesn’t quite fit, and she refuses to settle for one of Story’s pernicious happily-ever-afters.

She asks the second big question:

What if the Stories tell us?

And if they do, how can we escape?

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Ash & Bramble: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Signed copies from Prairie Lights

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.