October 9, 2013

Work v. Sanity: We Lose?

“I think the person who takes a job in order to live—that is to say, for the money—has turned himself into a slave.”

~ Joseph Campbell

I used to love my job. I really, really loved it. I wasn’t supporting the family; my job supplemented our main income and patched the holes when the economy tanked and my husband’s paychecks shrunk. It was a part-time job that left me time to take care of my parents, and to write.

It never felt like work. I was Fortune’s Favored Child doing work that made me happy and getting paid for the privilege. I was treated like “the talent,” given free rein in exchange for doing my very best.

Things change. Workplaces change, people change, and it’s all inevitable. I get that, like I get that water flows downstream and toast falls jelly-side down. My job changed and it no longer feels like a privilege or a labor of love.

It’s hard work that I do, hard physically and requiring great reserves of patience, cheerfulness and energy. As things have changed around me I have noticed that I get tired faster, and that things I once lifted easily now seem heavier. The smiles and jokes that came so naturally because I was relaxed and happy are now less sincere and more of a performance.

It all makes me tired, and sad—and angry. I am clinging to what I had before and that clinging is making me suffer.

I need either to open myself to accepting the changes and adapting, or make a break.

This terrifies me. It makes me feel guilty, and weak, and all kinds of slacker-y. It’s a First World, rich girl problem, “boo hoo, the woman with a husband who has a job is unhappy in her part-time job that pays for frills.”

There are women who do hard labor to support their children, they do it long hours every day and still barely make ends meet. They have no choice, no option to contemplate their respective navels for a while and consider leaving—their children would starve, and they would be evicted.

Lots of people I know work full time in soul-sucking jobs because it’s necessary to make the mortgage payments, the car payments, the orthodontist payments and generally maintain their lifestyle. My husband, for example, couldn’t just decide that his job didn’t feel right anymore, and quit because we have all of those expenses.

If I had understood 20 years ago that the best way to live was simply, we might not have set up a life in which we basically worked to support stuff and keep up with the proverbial Joneses. We might not have bought the 1912 house surrounded by student rentals that we will probably never be able to sell (because it’s surrounded by student rentals).

We wouldn’t have provided homes for a parade of animals with their attendant expenses.

I would have learned and taught my kid that spending money on things that we want but don’t need is like wrapping ourselves in chains.

I will tell you, though, that it didn’t seem responsible not to offer our son a nice house, the best schools, the soccer gear, the music lessons and the clothes as nice as everyone else’s. Because we could. It’s also really hard work to buck a culture that encourages us to equate stuff with happiness.

And looking back and whining about our financial choices is no more productive than looking back and whining about how much I used to love my job. It’s all past, all over, not real.

So I say to myself, “buck up, suck it up, other people do it every day and so can you.”

Then I find myself wondering whether I could replace my present income selling my plasma. (And it’s ridiculous, of course, and I totally can’t do it because my grandmother ran a Red Cross chapter and we do not sell our blood, we donate it).


That cool rush of possibility that I feel when I consider making a change, even if it involves rolling up my sleeves in some sketchy downtown clinic…it’s kind of wonderful.

Which changes my focus.

Which makes me think that maybe my suffering comes not just from clinging to the past, but from failing to give myself the compassionate I extend towards other living creatures. How can it be that I will carry a spider to safety but savage myself with judgments harsh and relentless?

I would tell a friend, someone I loved, to be present with feelings, to let the thoughts pass by like puffy clouds and learn from their body.

“What do you feel?” I would say, “Pay attention. If it’s wrong, you know in your back, in your shoulders, in the racing of your heart and the lump in your throat. And if you can change it, you must be brave and change it. No one else can save you or tell you what to do. No one else’s life can be your template.”

And I keep talking, only now I am speaking honestly to myself, my frightened, guilty self with the hunched shoulders, the easy tears and the neck spasm that won’t seem to quit. “You are privileged,” I continue, “you have more than most people  and you are absolutely obligated to do all that you can to improve the lives of those who suffer from poverty and injustice.

To do that, to use what you’ve been given you must be free and strong, open. You must find work that you believe in, that leaves you satisfied that you have done good, and treated yourself with love and respect.”

This counsel is wise.

And I am shaking, just a little, on the edge of letting go and reaching for what is next. But I whisper “go, open the gates again and let the energy and goodness of this universe flow through you as it should.

And I will.

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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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