This past weekend I travelled to Austin in a big, white 14-passenger van filled with student organizers for the first Equality Across America Texas conference, “Unite and Fight: Strategizing for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Equality,” which was followed by a march and rally at the Texas State Capitol in honor of Harvey Milk Day. I heard grassroots organizers speak about the need for action and strategies to promote policy change. I learned about issues from transgender discrimination to the struggles of gay immigrants to racial inequalities in the LGBT community, and I felt galvanized: “Harvey Milk was right, show your pride and fight!”
This weekend was a reminder of something that constantly plagues me about my choice of profession. Lately I feel like every time someone asks me what I’m studying I end up having this conversation:
“What do you study?”
“Wow, that’s so cool! I study [nursing, engineering, medicine, political science, social work, law].”
“And you think music is cool? You’re going to help people, make a real, concrete difference in the world somehow, whereas I’m going to lock myself up with a piano and feed my gluttonously selfish desire to create art. Your choice of profession is so much nobler.”
This probably explains why I haven’t made any new friends lately. But, more importantly, it hits on something that’s been bothering me since I read the Chekhov short story “Gooseberries”: creating art for a living is a selfish indulgence. Sometimes I want to switch majors, transfer to community college and do social work. I won’t, because I feel a real, genuine calling for music that I can’t ignore and I am positive that it is what I want to do with my life. But sometimes the guilt and, quite honestly, the sense of privilege are overwhelming.
A few times when I’ve had that conversation where I scare away potential new friends they’ve responded with the argument that music is a gift that brings happiness to people when you share it. This thought nourishes my burdened soul a bit, as does the act of teaching – of giving back. But at the same time I’m afraid that teaching music merely perpetuates the idea that this selfishness is O.K., and encourages a leisure-class lifestyle.
Do you think I’m being too hard on myself about this? Does anybody else struggle with this paradox, or have any advice or life experience about how to reconcile it?