Quit My Day Job? . . . I Don’t Think So
“The road of spiritual growth…begins by distrusting what we already believe, by actively seeking the threatening and unfamiliar, by deliberately challenging the validity of what we have previously been taught and hold dear. The path to holiness lies through questioning everything.”
From “The Road Less Traveled,” by M. Scott Peck.
How important is it to your overall sense of happiness that you find satisfaction in your day job? This is a good topic to discuss over a tall cold pitcher of beer or a $3 cup of coffee in one of the many sports bars and coffee shops on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. The effect is similar to walking a puppy on campus. All kinds and types of people wander over to say hello. Opinions range from ‘It’s just a job, something I do to pay the rent’ to ‘I work 60 hours a week. I damn well better like it and get something more than money from it.’ My contribution to the discussion is along these lines: I want to care passionately about my work and without a doubt my self-esteem is tied to how I feel about my job. That being said, it is no exaggeration to say that for over forty years my day jobs have been a problem for me. Through two very different careers, social worker/drug abuse counselor and computer programmer/systems analyst, I have had an unbroken series of jobs that have been sources of acute pain and suffering. In general, there are always two parts to my day job problem: the tasks required by the job and the people I work with while I am doing these tasks. The people problem has two sub-parts: the people who track and evaluate my work on job tasks (managers) and the people who don’t (peers). There is something that happens to me between the hours of 8 AM and 5 PM that transforms me from a relatively quiet mild mannered man into a raging warrior fighting windmills, intent on changing the unchangeable rules and conditions of my workplace.
What do you want to be when you grow up? When did I first hear that question? Maybe in the cradle. Parents, relatives, teachers, friends and the milkman all asked me this question. I was at a loss. I didn’t know. Was I supposed to know? Did others know? How do I find out? How do I become something? I needed a label, a title, a certificate that spelled out the answer. It never occurred to me to create my own label. I’m from Tottenville working class stock. Who ever knew you could do such a thing? I did well in science and math classes. Sputnik had made careers in science almost a national calling. So my vision was limited to the well-known jobs and careers that were available to those who had that type of interest. Engineer. Chemist. Physicist. About 1965 or 1966 the Sixties really kicked in and I, along with many others, became aware that it was scientists who had created napalm and neutron bombs. They were part of the evil military industrial complex. In retrospect it was an unfair judgment but the Hippies had spoken. Also the threat implied by Sputnik had faded. Along with it went my focus on the label ‘scientist’. The major theme of my life for the first twenty years after high school was the sad and unhappy search for a label. The next twenty years the theme was trying to fit into the label I had settled on.
But here’s the wrinkle in this tale of woe: All of my life (at least since the sixth grade) I have known that I like to string words together on paper. Words that I chose to describe in my way my thoughts and feelings about anything or anyone. Then arrange those words to make sentences. Sentences to ideas. Ideas to stories, opinions, philosophical systems. Think about it. Think of what you can do with the right words. Bring down governments. Start a religion. Make a living. When I would think about somehow making a living as a writer the palms of my hands would sweat. I would look at or try to imagine what was before me. Long hours alone in a room. Rejection slips. And what would I write about? Mystery novels? Political essays? Hollywood screenplays? I would shake my head and turn away. I have turned away and turned away and turned away until my view is almost entirely fixed on looking backwards. I still consider my years at Tottenville High School as the apex of my achievements. So now here I am in the twilight of a mediocre life. The call to write has not gone away. I'm looking straight at the wide-open wine dark sea. I know that I have to go out onto it. And it's got me sh-sh-sh-shakin. Even though I am a certified and experienced reader of “The Road Less Traveled,” I see the journey as too brutal and filled with uncertainty. I am an old traveler. Nimble recoveries to new paths are less likely.
“The Road Less Traveled” is a famous self-help book from the late seventies that presents to the reader for consideration a startling revelation that today is perhaps commonplace wisdom: life is difficult. When I thought about it for the first time over twenty years ago I saw some merit to the idea. I also saw some revolutionary (for me) implications. It wasn’t just me. Life is difficult for everyone. There was some easing of the burden of failure I felt over my station in life at that time: I was 35 years old, single, unemployed and living with my parents in Florida. I may have been the original model for George Castanza of ‘Seinfeld’.
The book is a good manual for strategies on how to deal with the inherent difficulties that we have in existing as self-aware, thinking, and questioning protoplasm. But it never explores the question of why it is that life is so difficult. Was it an axiom (thank you Fred Kaestel) that I had to accept? Simple acts such as identifying and learning a marketable skill, understanding what women want, or getting and holding a job were sufficiently difficult for me to either make my heart race as I faced imminent disaster or generated a headache because no answer was on the table after many years of effort.
I had taken many philosophy courses during my college years. I had a genuine interest it and I decided to think and read about this problem. Most religions readily provided explanations. Christianity pointed to the Garden of Eden and the Fall From Grace. Buddhism blamed Attachment and Desire. As a Christian-Buddhist-Social-Darwinian I was less certain. So I started at the most basic level that I could define. What do all human beings, and even more generally, all living things have in common? From Mr. Breidenbach’s biology class I knew that they all metabolize (build up and break down protoplasm) and they reproduce. That was pretty much it if I wanted to avoid religious/philosophical considerations. Which I did. This is what I worked out from that starting point: (1) the environment has to be just right for living things to metabolize and reproduce. (2) there are many events that can and do occur to make the environment hostile and difficult for metabolic activity and reproduction. (3) living things have evolved various kinds of intelligences and physical characteristics and capabilities purely for the purpose of overcoming the events, obstacles and threats that interfere with living and reproducing. (4) humans may be unique in the set of living things on this planet through their ability to blame the hostile events on a superset or meta-reality (God(s) or Misfortune) and to question the ultimate purpose of the cycle of living, reproducing and dying.
So I had figured out (at least to my satisfaction) that the difficulties of life have a large part in defining what and who I am. It seemed to me then that the ability to deal with it all should be built into the system. I had a mind. I had opposing thumbs that worked. So why was I living with Mom and Dad and watching Lawrence Welk on the weekends? I went back to work on the problem.
I observed my own experiences. I noticed that my mind/body seemed to resist and resent effort. I also noticed that they ironically wither and atrophy in the absence of effort. My mind/body also seemed to pursue pleasure as much as it resisted effort. But, again ironically, too much pleasure seems to dull the intensity as well as damage the system. I had plenty of experiences with both phenomena. Harry Potter himself could not have been more pleased than I was when I figured out this little bit of magic: resistance to uncomfortable effort is a smokescreen. In order to maintain state (mental and physical) it is necessary to stress the system. But not too much. Too much stress results in destructive pain and suffering. And the system likes pleasure. Anticipating and experiencing pleasure seems to make the system act with more ease and efficiency. But not too much. Pleasure is a misleading signpost. Go too far in that direction and pleasure intensity will evaporate and lead to destructive pain and suffering. In life one must walk a narrow path of balance and moderation. Everything in moderation. Including moderation. In other words, I had discovered the value of discipline. One of the legacies of the Sixties for me was a distrust of structure and discipline. Too militaristic. But where was my hero Jim Morrison? Molding away in a grave in Paris after going to one too many whiskey bars.
I’ll leave it to the theologians and philosophers to figure out why there are these smokescreens and misleading signposts that have fooled and destroyed so many people for a millennia of centuries. Maybe that’s where the real difficulty lies. The easiest person in the world to fool is yourself. So when Charlie Rose or Oprah calls me in for an interview, that is when I’ll know I’m ready for prime-time and I’ll quit my day job. Until then my only effort of day job socializing will continue to be my familiar question, “Anybody here have some aspirin?”