Sunday, August 22, 2021

On Work and Connection

 I just read this lovely essay by Esau McCaulley. In it he discusses how our new nearness to death has affected our lives:

"This pandemic has left conversations and lives cut short. And it seems to be bringing a similar clarity to people about their priorities. . . . All these changes that people are embarking on during the pandemic make me think that we weren't that happy before the pandemic. . . . The pandemic has disabused us of the illusion of time as a limitless resource and of the false promise that the sacrifices we make for our careers are always worth it. Before the pandemic, we knew we were going to die, but we did not believe it. . . . Exercise and a reasonable diet was the tithe we paid to our fears. We believed we had time.  
This opportunity made plain what may have been hidden. Maybe the sacrifices we make for our careers are not worth it. When we had the illusion of time, the lower pay, long commutes, high cost of living and separation from loved ones seemed a small price to pay for a successful career. But the pandemic reminded us that there are some things more important than vocational progress. Friends with children came to see that living far from family meant that they did not have a social network that could help them when school and life logistics became difficult. Covid-19 showed us that when systems break we need people. . . . Being at home helped many people realize how lonely they were before the pandemic and how few people they could really turn to in need. The pandemic has reminded us that life is more than what we do. It is about whom we spend our lives with. We cannot hug a career or laugh with a promotion. We are made for friendship, love and community."

As a single mom, there were times with the little ones that I very much felt that if one thing went wrong, it would all come crumbling down. I was so fortunate to have managed those years without a major illness or accident, much less a pandemic. I had few supports. My mother died shortly after my second was born, and she had been my go-to for absolutely everything. It was dumb luck to have the health and security to raise my kids to a more independent age on my own, which is just one more reason I advocate for a Universal Basic Income. In the past 18 months, too many people reached that final straw that left them floundering. 

There's a middle class vibe to the essay that suggests we should work a little less obsessively so we can stay at home more often. That's not how it works for most people for whom working less means having less in the bank to pay for necessities, and he addresses that:

"I have relatives in service industries raising similar questions. They are no longer willing to deal with harassment from rude customers for a barely livable wage. They are struggling to pay their bills, but they are doing so on their terms with their humanity intact." 

I lingered on those lines. I am working hard right now to squash the rising panic about teaching again, images of a bursting classroom looming over me. I have my denial fully engaged so I can wring out the final bits of joy from this summer. I want to keep lounging at the dinner table, chatting for hours with my family, without anything pressing on me to get to work. If this year is anything like the last, and I believe it will be, then I won't have another beautifully protracted, aimless conversation with friends or family until Christmas. The thought just adds to my dread. Any daily complaints about windows being open an inch to provide ventilation as thirty kids all take off their masks to eat together might just push me over the edge again. Teachers work surrounded by potential for harassment from frustrated and scared students, from their parents, and from the general public. Refusing to tolerate some level of disgruntled complaining isn't possible. We get yelled at. Anyone who works with people is open game for soaking up all the daily ire rising in each of us. We sooth and calm and address concerns but are still sometimes leaking out their angry words on the way home.

However, working with people also means being surrounded by potential for connection. We need to consider how much we've segmented our lives so that work is a place we focus on tasks, and home is a place we hope to focus more on people despite all the cleaning and maintenance and homework that needs to be accomplished while we're here. Can our work lives and the people we encounter at their work, like at the grocery store, become better forums for connecting, community, and social supports? 

McCaulley points out the reality we're just beginning to acknowledge, a reminder of what matters, but he doesn't give us the path to change beyond quitting or caring less. With families fragmented and many lost loved-ones, maybe better community engagement, starting in workplaces, is our only hope, not just with colleagues, but with customers, clients, charges, and with people we see along the way. I'm spurred on to change by stories of that doctor who walked a nervous patient to get their vaccine, or another who phoned each patient individually to connect about their fears. Of course we can't always go the distance like that, but sometimes we can. Sometimes we can move outside of the bureaucracy governing over us to see all the people before us. 

ETA these words from Laurie Penny's latest:


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