Make yourself useful!
Can’t you find something productive to do?
Do those words sound familiar? Yeah. Me, too.
I was raised with a strong work ethic and a strong volunteer ethic. Both have been solid foundations in my life, except for one thing:
Our cultural definition of work.
Work: That activity that imprisons so many of us into a schedule, into a car, into rush hour. That large piece of our life in which we must perform certain tasks in certain ways according to certain policies and procedures and do nothing else. That arena in which we compete and prostitute our power to an (all too often) toxic authority.
Work as defined by someone else and enforced through our fear of losing a paycheck. Usefulness as defined by someone else. Productivity as defined by someone else.
Then there’s workaholism. I’ve been closely connected to more than one workaholic. I used to think workaholism was a meaningless riff on alcoholism, but one day I explored it more closely because it was destroying a relationship. I bought a book (I know you’re shocked), Chained to the Desk, by Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., and I read it and wept. I recognized a pattern I’d lived with my whole life: A pattern of unavailability.
Workaholism describes a dynamic in which we become entirely consumed by one idea or activity. Most commonly, it’s a job, but it can also manifest with volunteer work, hobbies and interests, recreational activities or ideologies like religion. Oh, and let’s not forget addiction. During active addiction as well as recovery, some lives remain centered on whatever the addiction is or was. There’s no room for anything else.
The workaholic has a primary relationship, just like an addict, and that primary relationship is all-consuming of his/her time and energy, although most of them will never, ever admit it. Workaholics are compulsively driven, self-destructive, unable to make choices, usually in denial, and they destroy relationships. They view themselves as frantically and endlessly trying to keep all the balls in the air: Family, partner, household, friends and work. Those of us connected to them experience chronic unavailability and abandonment from them and helplessly watch as they become steadily more overwhelmed, exhausted, disconnected, ill and miserable. Trying to talk about it only makes it worse.
Workaholism often begins because we are captivated by an activity we love. We have a sense of mastery and competence, or a sense of contribution. The activity seems to give us a connection to our own power. Sometimes we earn money, or recognition, or develop social bonds, or experience some other payoff that we can’t get enough of and can’t do without. Whatever it is we’re engaged with is familiar. It’s not uncomfortable, uncertain or uncontrollable. We understand what we’re doing. We can succeed at it. It doesn’t frighten or threaten us. When we’re engaged with it we’re not doing anything else. It’s the perfect distraction. We can’t be expected to do anything else. We’re not supposed to be doing anything else. We have no time for anything else. We’re working!
Meanwhile, the rest of the workaholic’s life, all the complicated, messy stuff, becomes a smoking crater. The larger the crater grows, the harder the workaholic works in order to avoid managing or facing it.
It’s a dreadful, destructive cycle.
Some people on the other end of the spectrum from the old 9-to-5, 40-hour-a-week paradigm are talking about unjobbing. Unjobbing challenges the traditional Calvinist work ethic so many of us were raised with. It explores the territory between a 40-hour-a-week job and chronic unemployment supported by foodstamps and other social subsidies. I’ve read a lot about it over the last two or three years.
Unjobbing does not imply that one doesn’t work, just that we define it more precisely, or maybe less precisely. Maybe we should stick with the classic meaning of work as an activity involving effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result, and let any reference to jobs go.
This morning, as usual, I took a walk. I took a bucket with me, because the trees are dropping their cones and I make handcrafted wreaths and other art with them. (When I lived in Colorado, I bought all these cones. Now I take a bucket on my walk and pick them up! I love it.)
Anyway, as I walked I thought about all this: Work, unjobbing, workaholism, income sources. I groped around in the terminology, in my guilt and shame about not wanting to work in the way I’ve done all my life, and poked at my deeply-rooted belief that everyone must work! I thought about how expensive it can be to work, in education, in time, in energy, in clothing and equipment, in gas and transportation, in child care, in taxes and “benefits,” in self-respect and power and joy. I thought about work as a limitation, perhaps one of the biggest limiting factors in our lives.
It occurred to me that what I really want is a seamless life. I don’t want my life to look like: Work For Pay. Relationship. Creativity. Housework. Errands. Relaxation. Exercise. Volunteerism. Play. I can do more than live in a series of small boxes, much, much more. I can be more.
I want my life to be like my morning walk. I don’t set an alarm or adhere to any other kind of schedule in order to do it. It’s not a chore; I do it because I want to. It starts my day with exercise. It’s meditative, grounding and centering. It refuels my creativity. It reconnects me to my spiritual source. It provides free resource with which I can earn money and do something I love to do.
All this in a 45-minute walk. Useful. Productive. Joyful. Simple. Free. Seamless.
A seamless life. I don’t know if I can create such a life. I only just this morning identified what I really want. I’m not going to discuss with the voices in my head whether my desire is appropriate, allowed, shameful or possible. Such a discussion isn’t useful. I’ve worked all my life, for a paycheck, as a volunteer, in a household and as a parent. If I have to go back to a traditional job, I will.
But I’m going to try damned hard to find a better way.
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