I’ve been in Chicago for about two months, which feels like enough time to see the ways I reply to family members and friends who ask how I am via email, call, text, or the odd letter. I have a few options I tend to use as responses. Sometimes I’ll say I’m getting into the rhythm; my year as a Jesuit Volunteer has begun smoothly alongside people I really like; work at Taller de José is wonderful; the city presents its challenges but has a real current of life running through it, etc.
These are all real things I’ve said and not a single one is a lie. And yet, are any of them wholly true? Probably not, just in the same way that when someone asks you at the store how you are, you respond I can’t complain, you’re not giving the whole truth. You could justifiably complain about any of those small or large difficulties that come along with being a human being on this imperfect planet. Part of giving that answer is just being bearable– I probably wouldn’t have many friends (or even acquaintances) if I laid bare my deepest anxieties every single time some ran into me at the dollar store. The other part is just the limits of human expression. Words, even when used to their maximum potential by the best, clearest, and most talented writers, really only capture part of what we experience within. I tell you I’m “getting into the rhythm” or that “the city presents its challenges” because they both gesture towards part of a larger truth.
So in what ways do the quick check-ins I have with loved ones every so often miss some other parts of the real experience? Is working at Taller de José not actually wonderful? It’s complicated but worth trying to explain.
My job description as compañero was well written and clear. As I read it during my Jesuit Volunteer Corps application, I connected to the work as it was laid out and on most levels, it did essentially describe what I currently do at TDJ. I listen, work with, and accompany my clients. In theory, I could send it along to those asking about what I do and they would get a pretty accurate sense of my day to day. What the job description did not and could not capture was the deeper and more striking experiences I’ve shared with those clients. As my co-workers have beautifully detailed in blog entries before me, every single person that we meet with has their own rich and textured story. Clients share a piece of their life that might be troubling them and we try our best to walk with them towards a solution. Sometimes, that means listening to someone share really difficult situations and wanting to cry alongside them. Other times, it means laughing with a client and feeling that deep togetherness that comes along with a good joke.
A professor of mine described those unexplainable, undefinable moments as examples of the Jesuit concept of desolation and consolation. The days when I leave work and want to just curl up because of what a client is experiencing and how inadequate I feel in the face of their pain, I experience desolation. The days when I leave and just smile into the world around me because of how blessed I feel to be at TDJ and work with such good people, I experience consolation. The words consolation and desolation are not in the job description. I don’t use them in casual conversation. They really only work inwardly in order to rearrange and lightly frame the highs and lows that come along daily work. Perhaps if I gave a specific story and used specific words, someone might be able to map one of the two concepts onto the story. Such as, the way you told the story makes it seem sad, so it sounds like desolation. Or this story was told as an uplifting one, so it sounds like consolation. The strange reality is that my workday is a breathless mix of both and I have no way to describe it fully. So when people ask about Chicago and more specifically about Taller de José, I respond with, “work at Taller de José is wonderful” because that word, wonderful, is the partial truth that gestures towards the whole. My time is not defined just by the joyous or the painful, the consolation or the desolation. It is inexplicably both at the same time. It is that mix, that paradox, that shimmering vagueness around a job description that isn’t wrong but isn’t quite right, that I call wonderful.