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The Personal Journey of Jane Addams

There's a lot about the young adult years of Jane Addams that resonate with today's students.

September 11, 2019

We know a great deal about Jane Addams's personal journey. And lo and behold, it has profound similarities to the path that a lot of young people walk today.

Books and travel expanded her horizons, but they didn't answer the deeper existential questions. She fell into a depression, a condition that doctors at the time referred to as "neurasthenia."

What brought her out of it?

Finding her role in the world -- more specifically, finding a way to be of service.

On a visit to the East End of London, she witnessed a scene that made a profound impression upon her. A man stood in the midst of a crowd of poor people, holding aloft rotting vegetables, contemptuously inviting the laborers to bid on a meager dinner. When one worker gave his day's wages on a cabbage, it was flung at him. Jane Addams watched as the famished man sat on the ground and tore into the vegetable, unwashed and uncooked.

The moment reminded Jane Addams of a dream that she had as a little girl: the world needed saving and she wanted to play her role, so she built a wagon wheel.

What could she build now that she was a college-educated young woman witnessing firsthand the suffering so many were enduring at a time of tectonic social and economic change, and experiencing herself a kind of aimlessness that had descended into depression?

The answer to that turned out to be Hull House. It started off as a way to meet the needs of recent immigrant laborers and their children in a part of the city that people like Jane Addams were not supposed to go. It turned into a way to renew American democracy.

Frederick Buechner has a classic line about vocation. He uses religious language: "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

For Jane Addams that place had an address -- 800 South Halsted. She lived there from 1889 until her death in 1935. That's finding your calling.

And she started off, as she later wrote in Twenty Years at Hull House, as a young person like you, seeking "To construct the world anew and conform it to (my) own ideals."


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