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I blog about my Catholic faith, my prayer life, good books and good movies.

Dealing With The Toxic Shame of Student Loan Debt

Abigail Benjamin

In a few months, I'm considering making a promise to spend the rest of my life as a Carmelite. I'm starting to sweat my profession. First, I'm promising to spend 90 minutes to 120 minutes a day in prayer, which at this stage of my limited formation seems so incredibly boring.  In my early Carmelite days I used to hop around with interior joy and think "Yeah, it's prayer time. Time to get fed Royal Honey from the Creator of the World!" Now in the middle of a good case of acedia at age 40 I think, "By promising to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, a 1/2 hour of mental prayer, and attend Mass every day, that's about 2 hours a day in prayer for the rest of my life!"

I don't have any magical answers for the cure of acedia, except to look at the fruits. Prayer is like this huge battle. It's really hard. Yet we live in a time when almost everyone I meet on a daily basis is dying of loneliness and spiritual thirst. I'm much happier and more productive when I've got a steady prayer routine in my life. I usually enjoy helping "water" my husband and my children with this access to deeper grace. The few times, when I really want to give up, Christ will send me a stranger to greet who I somehow "give" the right words, or a comforting action, and I know that that knowledge didn't come from "me" but is a result of something "beyond me."

I live in a harsh social climite in a poor community inside the hills of Appalachia.  There is so much natural beauty around me. There is also so much harded sin. We're the state of fracking from coal companies and poisoned drinking water. Almost every single person that I adored from my Central West Virginia High School has left the State for better job opportunities. "I alone remain." My battles here are so small and so hardwon. I am so tempted to run away to a better spot. Yet there are so many times that I'm glad that I don't live in Washington D.C. or Boston or Portland. 

When I think about becoming a Carmelite here, in this State, I'm so filled with gratitude and hope. Only 5% of the State is Catholic. There are not many priests here or religious. I'm grateful to be close enough to an established Carmelite Community in Maryland that draws members from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. We have 3 members from West Virginia. While sometimes I wish we were part of a bigger, and more active, diocese there is something beautiful about taking all that wisdom and joy back over the bridge that crosses a state line at the Potomac River at the end of every meeting.

While my struggles to become a Carmelite are mostly internal, there is an external hurdle that as caused me anxiety recently, my student loan debt. I know that God is going to have big plans for me after I become a Carmelite. Since I'm joining an order based on the "virtue of poverty", I'm pretty sure I won't be getting paid for most of his work for me. For example, just this week, I'm writing a fiction book that no one is going to read. I'm an unpaid volunteer for a Conservation Film Festival. I'm a school teacher for my own children, which doesn't pay.

I'm excited to do more of this fun work. I like being a free agent for God inside this nutty world economy. 

But there is my $90,000 of student loan debt from Law School which has morphed into $115,000 after my elevan years of not working. On my calm days I think "only $25,000 for 11 years with 6 kids. What a bargain!" On my spiritually spiraling days, I think "What if I never repay this debt?"

Educational Debt is hard on me and sometimes it feels shameful and toxic. There's this issue of "Are you using your education?" As a woman, I also think "Am I letting down my gender?" (I went to a feminist all women's college) When I add the layer of debt to all the philosphical discussions, I start to feel like a real failure. I start to make vague plans to rush out and either get a part-time paralegal job or start my own business in order to "pull my own weight."

In the middle of this struggle, I keep finding these messages to slow down and appreciate what I give to the world. I'm learning that humility is not just an appreciation of what I lack, but also an appreciation of what I have.

One night last week, when I was struggling with my Secular Carmelite Vocation I did a google websearch that landed me on a Monestary page for Carmelite monks (friars). In black and white the monks said "We understand that your education will likely benefit your work in the Order. Therefore, we are happy to assume responsiblity for repayment of your educational debt. We can't do the same for other kinds of debt, including credit card debt and car loan. But contact us. We have worked with men in your same situation."

I felt this openness and lighteness when I read that sentence. I felt like there was a way into the Order, even as a Secular. Don't panic. Work diligently to get rid of all consumer debt, including our mortage. Realize that my extensive education benefits my work as a Carmelite. I need to be patient and trust that my educational loans can get repayed, even as I work for God.

Today I had the courage to relook at my student loans. It's amazing how much better the information for consumers has gotten in the 15 years since I signed my promissory notes for Law School. There is a national website that gives comparative anaylsis among all my repayment plans in visual graphics! I was so happy to see a graph!

When I was 25, I took a low paying Non-Profit Law Job on faith. All, and I mean all, of my dear friends who went to a well known public interest law school to work in government or non-profit work, freaked out over the cost of our law school loans are 3rd year and went to work for huge Law Firms in Chicago or Milwaukee or New York City. I hung on to my first choice career dreams out of sheer stubbornness. 

After I had landed the impossible to find non-profit "dream job", I ended up having a horrible conversation over the phone (a landline, not a cellphone) with a Customer Service Specialist from Sallie Mae in the hallway of my cheap rental house in Portsmouth, Ohio. I had this awful moment of panic where I thought "My classmates were right. It is impossible to repay this education debt and still live at the same time." I hung on the phone line again out of stubbornness and kept saying "I can't pay this monthly debt amount. There has to be another way!" Of course, there was another option. They just didn't want to tell me about it.

When I looked at these cool graphics related to my specific situation, I realized how much that would have helped me navigate the confusion of student loan repayments at age 25. I'm also happy they replugged the loophole. Back in my day, they gave loan forgiveness to doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers. They didn't give it to lawyers. I was stuck in a hole where I had to pay a high price for a legal education to do the work I wanted to do in Appalachia, but important non-profit work had low wages. Now it looks like they offer loan forgiveness to all major non-profit workers. I'm happy. I'm glad no one else is going to have that stress.

I like finding the hard middle way. I want to do the special work that I, alone, was put on this plane to accomplish. I also want to be responsible and repay my student loan debt. Right now, my current repayment plan means that I'll finish my loans at age 62 or 63. That number is kind of laughable, right? I signed my first big loan promissory note for $18,000 at age 22. A mere 40 years later I'll get to celebrate my last loan payment.

When I find courage to look at the actual debt numbers and own my life choices, I feel this intense amount of joy. 

I'm so grateful that all of this messy, hard, spiritual journey to become a Carmelite means that I find peace in work, in debt, in family, in identity, in addition getting to chat with the Creator of the World with love and intimacy each day. Peace with God means Peace on Earth!

Thank you for listening to my long, ramblings. He sets the captives free!