Between jobs a few years ago, I happened to chat with a friend in another town. I mean, I didn’t KNOW I was between jobs then – I merely knew that I’d chucked my old one and was looking for alternatives.
The state of being jobless is a spiritual experience – it is like looking down from the edge of Hell’s chasm, smelling the sulphur fumes and hearing the screams of the tortured while the heat from below singes the hair in your nostrils. Extremely unpleasant, but we tend to remember such times in a moronically sanitized manner in later years. Sometimes we fondly call them ‘the turning point of my life’ or ‘the time when I experienced the spirituality of helplessness.’ We are a dumb race, to be sure, or we’d have been smart enough to extinct ourselves long ago.
The days where one job hunted by wearing out shoe leather are over, of course. What you do today is put out ten bucks, hit the nearest cyber café and wear out your fingers instead, keeping your mobile within grabbing distance the moment you see the words ‘walk-in interview’ on the monitor.
My friend is like me – he can’t stop working. I compared notes with him many years ago, and we’re fairly sure that workaholism is not in our genes. In other words, something has happened to us along the way. The result – we are the first to profess that work is not everything in life, but our lives to do not epitomize that homily. We work as though our lives depend on it, defining Hell as any day on which we don’t have enough work to occupy every spare moment.
“So how’s life?” he asked
“Life sucks,” I replied, only paying marginal attention as I scanned yet another job site. “Am jobless. Am doomed.”
“Why are you doomed?” he asked, his gentle curiosity infuriating me. It seemed to imply that I had missed the point here; that a job is NOT as important as I was making it out to be… that I was some poor ignoramus in the Kingdom of the Enlightened, and that he was here to show me the Way. That, coming from him, was nothing but a joke.
“Am doomed ‘coz am jobless,” I replied, wondering how anyone could question such logic. The jobs portal had great listings for people with 7+ years experience – I had 2.5, and that was pushing it. I was doomed for sure.
“So what’s the big deal about being jobless?” he asked.
Was he sick? Had he got Jesus or Coelho? How can one even THINK of dragging such an important aspect of life down to the level of mere philosophy? I mean, you can probably do that if you have a working wife, which passes off for being gainfully employed in India. Me, I was single and still an adherent of the obsolete school of thought that believes that a man must pull his own freight in life. I know how old fashioned that sounds, but there you are…
My fingers slithered restlessly across the keyboard. My ten bucks in the cyber café were almost used up and I STILL hadn’t found a job.One job search site stated that there was an opening for assistant bank clerk for someone of my experience, if I wanted it. I was partly willing to consider it by then.
I was about to hit the ‘end chat’ icon when he threw a simple question my way.
“Why do we make such a big deal out of work, the likes of you and me?”
I mean, what kind of question is that? Work? Big deal? Work is GOD!! Work is all there IS!! All hail the Holy Workload!!!
“We have to keep body and soul together!” I replied. “I don’t know about you, but nobody’s hanging around with a perpetually stocked fridge in MY part of town!”
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “We’re not homeless urchins. We all know enough people who would throw two square meals our way till we die if that was the only criterion.”
“Speak for yourself,” I replied curtly. “I don’t.”
“No? What about your dad back in Hicksville? You telling me he wouldn’t feed you, expecting nothing but a willing ear for his geriatric drivel in return?”
He had a point there. There’s always someone we can suck up to if it comes to safeguarding mere physical existence. The REAL point here, however, was that I would’ve rather DIED than subject myself to such ignominy. Been there, done that, can’t never do it again.
I cannot speak for everyone, of course. Some otherwise virile men seem to be content with mooching off their wives’ earnings, but I think the global standard is that they’d rather NOT be known as doing that. In other words, mere survival is not a real reason for why we work.
“We overwork because we feel that as long as we’re working harder than anyone else, we won’t die,” I hazarded, getting sucked into the discussion despite clearly having better things to do. The job search page of yet another job portal jittered suspiciously when I pasted in my threadbare CV. I think it was laughing at me.
“Hmm, there may be some truth there,” he replied. “But we’re all smart enough to know that we’ll die anyway, work overload or no work overload.”
I had no proof to the contrary to offer, but I still had a good answer left.
“We overwork to get away from our overbearing spouses, dictatorial parents, demanding brats or whoever else we have been idiotic enough not to jettison from our lives long ago,” I said.
“Does it work?” he asked. “Those chickens always come home to roost anyway, no matter how we try to avoid them.”
“We overwork because our egos demand it,” I shot back. “Because we need to prove to the world that we’re capable of living life on life’s terms.”
“I don’t think so. We may believe during the day that the whole world is watching and evaluating what we do with out lives, but at 2.00 in the morning, everyone of us knows that nobody’s watching at all. Everyone is too tied up in their own shit to give doodly squat about anyone else.”
I was getting pretty hassled about it all by then.
“For the money!” I replied vehemently. “FOR THE GODDAMN MONEY!!! We overwork because we LOVE MONEY!!”
There was a long pause. Then….
“Oh, yeah? Well, how is that you always end up in loser jobs working harder and making much less on it than anyone else?” he asked.
I didn’t reply. He was being unreasonable, and I don’t argue with unreasonable men. Also, he was right.
Finally, he sent me this –
“I think we kill ourselves with work to fight off that dreadful feeling of futility and shame.”
Then the monitor switched to a hideous shade of aquamarine and a ‘gimme more money’ screen came up. My hour of cyber café time was up. I walked out. I didn’t HAVE more money.
He was right. We overwork because we feel our lives are futile if we don’t. We can’t stay away from wrestling with the company’s annual report on a weekend because the company is the only entity on earth that makes us feel validated. We can’t stop working while others are relaxing because if we do we feel like the eunuch in the harem. That explains the ‘Busman’s Holiday’ that Eric Berne outlines in his book ‘The Games People Play’ – (sic) ‘using skills learned in one’s profession to help others without pay while on vacation – for example, Joining the Peace Corps (nominally paid).’
But we also overwork because we fear the Hereafter, where the complete depth of the meaninglessness of our lives will surely be exposed. Sure, the simple fear of death comes in there somewhere, but it goes deeper than that. Even the most die-hard atheist in the lot instinctively works to store up brownie points in the very Heaven that he says he doesn’t believe in. I know of the futility of worldly treasures, titles and adulation – but I’m not sure what waits on the other side of the grave and I don’t want to think about it, either.
What we workaholics do all our lives is work hard enough to feel that we deserve some indulgence in guilty pleasures, snarf up those pleasures, work hard yet again, feel worthy enough for more guilty pleasures, then work even harder. On and on it goes.
We don’t know why we do this, but what we hope without knowing that we hope is that the Someone Upstairs whose existence we don’t think about at all while we’re still alive and in control of things will sigh, throw away the damning tally sheet when we come face to face with Him and say, “Well, you were a totally louse all your life. Look at this – you are a prime candidate for damnation. Hmm, but you sure worked hard. Okay, come in…”