Creative Freelancers, The World Needs You Now.
Why do we place such extraordinary importance on living purpose-filled lives?
This article was written by featured writer Zach Schepis.
Ren never made it through acting school. As a budding theater kid ensconced in the ambitious delirium of NYU’s undergraduate program, she felt listless and lost. Everywhere she turned, her peers prickled with self absorption. They slipped into endless continuums of stress, where anxieties over landing the next role and unhealthy comparisons to one another ultimately diluted any passion and meaning from the craft. That path, she decided, ultimately wasn’t meant for her.
By the time I met Ren, years had passed since she left her undergraduate pursuits behind. She came into the Brooklyn cafe where I worked each Sunday, with her smile and aloof cackle that never failed to illuminate the dimly lit room, where patrons furrowed their brows over hot steam and buried their faces in the glow of so many Macbook screens.
When you’re a freelancer, you tend to pick up side hustles to help pay the bills. Investigative journalist by day and gigging funk guitarist by night, I’m a barista on the weekends.
Ren, on the other hand, had her own side hustle. I didn’t learn exactly what that meant until she came into the shop on a cloudy afternoon in March with tears in her eyes and a stack of rain tattered notebooks tucked under both arms.
Some people have a bad day at the office, and they go home to decompress. For Ren, a bad day like this one meant being trapped in a windowless cell on an island miles away from any friends or loved ones, standing helpless while a dozen prisoners in matching jumpsuits screamed and lashed against the flurried restraint of correctional officers and the blaring symphony of alarms.
Each day, Ren would awake at the eve of dawn, hop in her car, and cruise through Queens along the Grand Central Parkway. The sun would rise over the East River, breaking through the mist and kissing the red-tipped towers of the Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant as her little Volvo made its way along the final stretch of bridge towards a vast and impenetrable barbed wire fortress.
It was during those somber morning drives that Ren contemplated her unconventional lifestyle. She had been teaching theater to inmates on Rikers Island Correctional Facility for nearly two years, but each day still seemed to carry the weight of a new beginning.
“It’s funny,” she told me, calmer now, sipping her coffee as the rain picked up again outside.
“When I told my family and friends about my new job, they told me not to do it. They were afraid for me. Now they’re proud, and they tell their friends, but I know that they’re still afraid.”
Shortly after leaving NYU, Ren began freelancing for the Stella Adler School of Acting. The nonprofit remains one of the most revered acting studios in the country, and has trained the likes of legends such as Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Since 1949, their school of thought has remained the same: The growth of an actor parallels his or her growth as a human being.
Such a sentiment echoes all the more true through the hollow walls of Rikers, where many have been shuttered from growth altogether.
“Today was tough, and I can’t even imagine what that means,” I hear myself tell her. “But what you’re doing is incredible. You’re giving humanity back to people who have had it taken away from them.”
She half smiles, and we both know it’s something that she’s heard a million times before.
“You’re right; it is beautiful, and that’s why I keep going back,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything, even when it feels impossible.
“But sometimes I wonder,” she continues, leaning across the counter. Her eyes burn with intent. I almost have to look away, but can’t.
“What’s the purpose of purpose? Why do we feel the need to make such sacrifices, stake our happiness, our financial stability, lay our freedom — hell our lives sometimes — on the line, to fill our lives with purpose? How much can we really do?”
She finished her coffee and we said goodbye to one another. I watched her disappear into the rain outside, and realized that I never answered her question.
For days afterward I contemplated what she’d told me. Why do we place such extraordinary importance on living purpose-filled lives?
I thought about my own life path, how I’d left my full-time job as an Editor in Chief at an entertainment publication to focus on social justice work as a freelance investigative reporter. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and it meant returning to the food service industry once again — even after one whole college degree and career later — to help pay the bills.
Everyone talks about how purpose-driven work is on the rise.
There are new reports that reveal an overwhelming number of people out there who would take substantial pay cuts if it meant their jobs were filled with “purpose,” how they would leave if their company’s purpose was unclear or didn’t align with their own personal compass. For the commercially-driven brands of today, the old school titans of yesteryear are being left behind in favor of companies that embed their well-intentioned ethos into the cultural subconscious.
I shifted away from entertainment reporting because I was tired of asking celebrities about their fantasies and newest multimillion dollar projects. I wanted to speak with people who had real stories to tell, stories rooted in truth and suffering, people whose voices weren’t being heard or reported by the mainstream media. When the waters finally subsided from the shores of Puerto Rico, I spoke to public school teachers on the island about a secret government agenda to use the destruction of the storm as a smokeshow to privatize the commonwealth’s education sector.
The assignment took me far longer than I’d originally intended, involved intense scheduling with survivors who didn’t speak much English, who were afraid to talk about what was happening, who were reeling to regain lines of communication that had been damaged and broken. It also paid less than I would have hoped, but still I was grateful to take it on.
But why? Was the altruism a new high, a refreshing departure from the narcissistic meanderings of Hollywood? Did I believe that I was making a real difference for all of those teachers in Puerto Rico, who I watched stumble through tear gas clouds only weeks later?
I thought about Ren using her passion for theater to distill hope in those who perhaps needed it most.
As creative individuals, we seek out new modes of self expression because they ultimately help set us free in some way. But when these creative powers function at their highest, they are capable of transcending the self and elevating others.
They create harmony in the world around us, or they deliver us warning signs. Maybe that’s part of the purpose.
Maybe that’s why ten Afghani journalists risked and lost their lives to share the truths they’d discovered with the world, even as the world turned their eyes to the White House Correspondents Dinner instead. Maybe it’s why clowns travel to war-torn countries like Syria to spread their laughter to those who have lost it. Maybe that’s why the music of Childish Gambino is pulsing through the collective consciousness right now, ripping through our waking nightmare with a gunshot of truth.
Next time I see Ren, I want to answer her question. At the end of the day, purpose creates meaning, and meaning defines our existence. It also defines the relationships we create between one another, and how we choose to value actions of love and compassion. The key word is create, because it’s always a choice, even if it’s not an easy one.
“How much can you do?” she asked.
It might take a lot of courage. But it turns out, you can do a hell of a lot.