Hand Over Heart, Heart Over Stomach

by Sharon Jacob, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group


People come here to see how the sausage is made, but some of them become vegetarians. – Quoted on Overheard Texas Lege (@overheardtxlege on Instagram)


Located in an office across the street from the Capitol, my placement at the Texas Legislative Study Group (LSG) is often blessedly sheltered from the drama of the Capitol. I’ve often found myself grateful for the pure luxury of worrying almost solely about policy analysis. And socially conscious policy analysis at that! But even the staff of the LSG aren’t immune from unknowingly stepping into a riptide of controversy occasionally. Sometimes, it’s a riptide from within the pink dome. Other times, it’s one from within the cranial dome. Either way, it’s an easy misstep that, without warning, plunges you into self-doubt and cynicism, and it takes a great deal of effort to swim away.

I’ve done a decent amount of hard work here at the LSG. From working 45+ hours over the course of just three days during Budget Week with a raging fever and sinus infection to learning the basics of Texas Property Code overnight to help grapple with the 180 amendments of property tax bill House Bill (HB) 2 to analyzing 150+ page controversial sunset bills that deal with continuing, abolishing, or merging state agencies. Yet, my hardest task has been, and will continue to be, wrestling with my own personal code of ethics. That’s right, the stupid principles I’ve been struggling with since I got here still haven’t magically transformed to better conform with life at the #txlege.

[Warning: Figurative gore]

I struggle when I learn over time that a legislator I had respected actually has a pattern of laying out ineffective, but shiny policy. I struggle when I slowly realize that a political group that seemingly stood for what I thought was right turns out to be more about the talk than walk. I struggle when I hear of the acrid, toxic workplace fostered by a well-respected official who routinely stands on the same side of issues as I do. I struggle when I see that an office’s policy stance has less to do with principle and more to do with allegiances and re-election strategy.

[End Warning: Figurative gore paused]

Four months into the legislative session, I’m tired. But it’s not entirely because of the work hours, the fervent anxiety of having overlooked an important detail, or the lack of sufficient sunlight. I’m tired because it is emotionally draining to tread water while holding on to heavy principles and values. I’m tired because stubbornly holding to idealism in an inherently unjust and imperfect world is a fool’s errand. I’m tired because all the processing that I neglected over the past 106 days of session has finally come crashing down with an unprecedented urgency – Who am I? What do I believe in? Do I have a place under the pink dome? If I want to do this work, how do I thrive here? Can I even survive here?

Here’s to 34 more days of procrastinating on the processing. Not that I’m counting or anything.

[Warning: Literal gore. Don’t read 30 minutes before or after eating]

When I was in high school, I like so many poor, unsuspecting teenagers, was assigned Upton Sinclair‘s novel, The Jungle. The story follows a poor Lithuanian immigrant family who supports themselves by working in the meatpacking district of Chicago. Sinclair takes great pains to describe the harsh conditions of the meatpacking plant – how slick the floors were with inches of congealed blood, how diseased, rotten, and good meat were all processed alike, how an accidentally filleted finger was just as good for processing as any other meat. He talks about the tragedy after tragedy that befalls the unfortunate family – the inhumane living conditions, the loans taken with hope as collateral, the shame exchanged for the hope of a livelihood, the lack of compensation for preventable workplace injuries, the tragic death of children.

[Warning: Literal gore ends here. Figurative gore on the other hand… Keep reading at your own risk.]

Sinclair intended for his work to expose the exploitation of immigrant communities. He intended for the reader to ache for a family that does all the right things but is rewarded with suffering. He wanted the country to weep at the plight of so many such families on whose backs others’ American dreams were.

Yet, America didn’t see the lack of social support for the working-class poor or the corruption of those in power. It was too busy steadying nausea from the vivid descriptions from the underbelly of the meat industry. In fact, Sinclair famously lamented that he “aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident [he] hit it in the stomach.”

While the meat-processing in the belly of the Capitol may turn my stomach, if my take away from this experience is simply that the Capitol Sausage Industry™ needs some cleaning, I’ve missed the point. We knew that already. The real challenge is to quiet the nausea enough to remember that at the heart of turbulent issues, at the heart of the snarled moral and ethical tangles, lie individuals, families, and communities. Deep within the layers of pretense, the inches of congealed gossip, and once good, but now diseased intentions, you’ll find at stake the very real lives of very real Texans. The trick to staying sane in this environment is holding tight to your values and seeing beyond the sometimes-sickening mess. Hand over heart, heart over stomach.

Of course, that isn’t to say that the issues in the sausage-making process shouldn’t be addressed as well. This environment turns some into vegetarians and others into carnivores. Those of us who shirk from one extreme but struggle to maintain the other find sanctuary in being flexitarian – begrudgingly taking part out of necessity.

With just a handful of weeks left in the legislative session, we’ve been warned that this is around the time that the roller coaster goes into freefall. Clutch your tummies and take your Dramamine because we’re headed toward the wildest part of the ride. Seatbelts, everyone!

(Please let this be a normal field trip.)

About GCSW Legislative Interns

This blog is brought to you courtesy of The Graduate College of Social Work's Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. Student interns work as full-time staffers in the Legislature, either as policy analysts with the Legislative Study Group, a Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, or in legislators’ offices. Here, they will share their unique experiences!
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