I was listening to an interview today with an Oklahoma teacher who helps women trapped in sex-related work — prostitution, stripping, porn. She mentioned that many of the women want out of that world, but they feel stuck. Then she said something that caught my attention.
“A lot of times, that kind of work is very financially lucrative,” she said. “And so, once you start making that kind of money, it’s very, very hard to walk away from.”
For a moment, I had trouble processing what that must be like. Why wouldn’t someone walk away from something which she had come to see as toxic for her life? And then it hit me that I wasn’t so different from these women.
I once did exactly the same thing — but with politics instead of sex work. I’ve joked many times that I’m a recovering political prostitute. For years, I kept doing things that I thought were disgusting, simply because I didn’t want to give up the huge payoff that came with the work.
Just like those women, I was trapped by my own desire for money and success.
When I started working in politics, I wanted to “make a difference.” I was under the delusion that the positive way to change a society was to work through the political system to elect candidates whose beliefs were similar to my own.
I’ve talked many times about how that slowly changed. (If you’re interested, here’s an interview that a podcast did with me about 10 years ago about it.) I can’t really tell you exactly when I realized that what I was doing was wrong.
I first had a sneaking suspicion that something about what I was involved in wasn’t right. As I came to understand the reality of politics more completely — and then as I clarified my growing philosophical understanding of individual freedom — I eventually knew that what I was a part of was pure evil.
But working for pure evil was eventually paying me somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000 a year. I felt trapped — just as those women in sex work often feel trapped. Who else was going to hand me that kind of money for the kind of work I knew how to do?
As I thought today about how my own experience wasn’t so different from that of a trapped prostitute, I realized that our goals — and our successes — can sometimes trap us more powerfully than our failures can. I don’t think I’d ever fully realized that.
I suppose I wanted out of politics for at least half of the 20 years I spent working in it. I had decided years ago that I needed to pursue something creative. I knew I wanted to make a film. I became absolutely certain that what I was doing — as a political consultant — was wrong for society and dreadfully toxic for me.
And I’ve been wondering today how many people are trapped by the goals they set for themselves, not by their failures, but by their successes? How many people remain where they shouldn’t be — in jobs where they shouldn’t be or with people who are toxic for them — simply because making a change would require them to walk away from some success? Or maybe just from a symbol of success?
I was once determined to be elected to political office myself. I had some pretty firm plans. I really did envision myself trying to become president in the end.
Sometimes, the most merciful thing that God gives us is failure. There are times when we ask for success at a certain thing, but winning some particular goal would be the worst possible thing we could do to ourselves.
I am very lucky that I got out of politics, not because I was going to fail, but because I was going to succeed so completely.
If I had stayed in the field, I would have eventually found a way to run for higher state offices — and there’s a decent chance I could have parlayed that into real power somewhere else. If I had found that power for myself — and the money that comes with it — I don’t know that I would have ever had the courage to walk away from it.
Ideally, we should be wise enough to set the right goals for ourselves, but that isn’t always possible. I hadn’t come to understand what was wrong with the system I was serving, and I certainly hadn’t come to understand how such power and money would destroy me. In the same way, the women who get into selling their bodies — in one form or another — feel as though they’ve found a quick way to success.
But success comes with a cost, even if it all seems good at first. What I’ve learned is that you are in bondage to whatever it is that keeps you from doing what you really need to be doing with your life.
I didn’t end up with the power or success or money which I once envisioned making from politics, but that’s a gift of mercy from God.
If there’s something which keeps you where you shouldn’t be — even if it appears to be success — you need to walk away. Giving up what I was once certain I wanted was the most freeing decision of my life, even though it cost me dearly for many years.
Getting your life onto the path where you ought to be is always worth it, no matter how high the price seems when it’s time to walk away from the dreams you once cherished.