The only investment that really matters? Human connection.

“Why do we keep trying not to see the human and invest in what fails?” asked Michael Nagler, a colleague of mine and author of the American Book Award-winning Search for a Nonviolent Future and The Nonviolent Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action. I was participating in a webinar in which he spoke about the tolls of militarized security and alienation.

The word “invest” struck chords with me. The typical associations popped into mind: banks, stock markets, corporate tax rates, subprime mortgages, the Fed. Then an unfriendly reminder: I owe more than $70k in student loans, with no certain possibility of paying them off. As the interest on these burdensome loans accumulates, so does the financial power of the world’s wealthiest individuals and corporations.

There’s at least one direct link between my student debt and Nagler’s question about investing in what fails. As a society, we’ve literally bought the failed idea that education comes at an exorbitant cost. As a grad student from September 2006 to January 2009, I had scored full-time work with a great salary in 2007, long before graduating. So I started paying down my student loans at a rapid clip, aiming to pay them off ASAP. But then the 2008 crash came, and by the summer of 2009, I simultaneously joined two ranks — the unemployed and the highly indebted. In paying off large chunks of my loans, I had reserved almost nothing for myself, investing in the bank’s financial future with no consideration of my own.

It took nearly four years to get over feeling like a naive failure as well as a number on some bank’s spreadsheet. And now, due to interest, my loans have mushroomed back to where they were — I basically threw $20k of hard-earned cash away. That’s alienation for you.

I’m no longer scared of my indebtedness. As my father likes to say, the bank can never take away your mind. But I remain troubled by the moral transgressions underwriting injustices like mass debt and the forms of violence that accompany such injustices. So I’m writing about it here, to invest in myself: to share this publicly is to refuse to cooperate with the sort of shaming and alienation underlying the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” propaganda.

Mainstream culture tends to regard vulnerability as a regrettable weakness, something to shove under the rug. And yet our ability to feel and peacefully confront our life wounds is precisely what makes us strong. It’s at the heart of cultivating inner power. In our own ways we’ve all felt how it works.

That is why I share all this. May we all invest in real freedom, real connection, and real harmony — it’s the only investment that pays off.

This is an edited version of a post I wrote for the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

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