Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Praise of Boring Work (For Now)

My first week out in the world after my mental health month was a pleasant one, but it started out not-okay. Waking up and getting into grey work pants felt like a death march—I couldn’t quite convince myself I wasn’t going to the old job to feel scrutinized and humiliated.

As I took the pleasant drive through affluent suburbs, so much anger and fear streamed out that I had to turn off the radio and just concentrate on breathing. I even thought of taking one of the six remaining Ativan that I’ve been carrying around in my purse like Dumbo feathers. (I tried to blog out some of the anger earlier this week, but it came out as a twelve-car pileup of pathos and I dreamed about bathroom accidents after I wrote it, so I thought it might be better to wait on coherence if I want to continue to have jobs and seem semipleasant.)

When I arrived at the bookstore, the managers (including Amy, my best friend/ex-wife with whom I’ve worked on and off for twelve years) were in a meeting and there was no one to assign me a task, so I hid among the book aisles, straightening and opening books to random pages, including this one:

“To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.” 
Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

(Take that, creepy little voice inside that tells me to stop writing about my white lady issues.)

Even though I knew no one would jeer, yell, or hit me, my body was sproinged with shame and fear. I hoped that no one would notice that I was all scared-bunny-in-traffic about my nine dollar an hour job.

The jitters lasted exactly until I had a list of online orders to fill. As I searched among a selection of near-identical navy blue university clothing, found the right size, and marked the quantity on the list, a feeling of well-being filled my soul and the fear and self-consciousness faded away. It’s the Candy Crush of jobs, satisfying, no-stakes, and somehow perfectly Zen. I’ve worked in boring jobs for more than half of my adult life, and it’s a blessing to return however briefly to my slacker roots. I even work for the gentlest supervisor imaginable—a genial and kind retired postman who is the perfect antidote for the steely, contemptuous principals I’ve been annoying for the past two years.

After scripted lesson plans that had to be timed down to the minute, it’s an exquisite luxury the way time slows down, everything empties out, and we all walk around with pleasantly neutral expressions. No one is needing me to validate their entire fucking existence with my attention. (Do turns of phrase like that mean I’m not meant to work with children at all? I hope not.) No cultural change, big or small, rests on my shoulders and oh my goodness, I clock out and then that’s IT.

(It was hard to convince myself to sit down and post this this afternoon—part of me still thinks I’ll be forced to return to the children-as-data spreadsheets that used to fill my Sundays.)

This brain-vacation can’t last very long, of course—the only reason I can afford to revisit my former slackerdom is that what would have been my summer pay should be arriving from the district before too long—but this job really has me seeing the value of emotionally neutral work for a sensitive little seashell like me. Meaningfulness is gratifying, but it can also be draining and overwhelming. If I fuck up at the bookstore, somebody might get the wrong size shirt. If I fucked up in the classroom, I wasn’t just fucking up the lesson, I was fucking up social justice and race relations, and being the Bad Cop at a time when that is the absolutely worst thing to be.

In the joy of having that off my shoulders, I’m letting myself wonder what emotionally neutral work might be out there for me, what ways there might be to balance meaningfulness with gorgeous, timestretching, mind-wandering boredom. Right now I’m thinking 70% no stakes/ 30% medium stakes might be nice.

It’s such a revelation to begin accepting myself as a sensitive person, acknowledging what my limits really are. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was handed a copy of The Highly Sensitive Person by a kind therapist and my reaction was “Fuck this!” It seemed so limiting to contemplate all of the everyday parts of life that might make me feel overwhelmed, and I’m glad I’ve ignored it for so many years. I wouldn’t take back any of the adventures that I’ve had, but at the same time, I’ve caused a lot of hurt to myself and others by seeking meaning in situations I wasn’t well-equipped to handle.

I’m excited to see what kind of life I can build to not just accommodate but celebrate my sensitivity, to find and enhance its strengths rather than see it as a liability to be overcome. In so many ways over the past few years I’ve tried to murder my delicate side, so nurturing it is a blessing and a relief.

I know my day-job job won’t be enough for long, but for now, I’m basking in it: Time for my newly-freed-from-the-Common-Core mind to wander, hangers waiting lovingly for me to straighten them, and my favorite near-rote human interaction of all time:

“Are you finding everything you need?”

“You mean in the store or in life?”

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