It’s spring, and the town comes more alive, with increasing numbers of visitors arriving. Perhaps, like me, you are coming out of the cloistered, monkish existence of the past six months and are gradually re-entering the work force.
It is a bit of a shock to the system. I have become used to wasting my time according to my own standards, pursuing my interests where they lead me. Now I must bend to the dictates of The Company. (I should add that I work for a wonderful company, the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch, and I love my job.)
Still, the rhythm of my days has been rudely interrupted and constrained. It occurs to me that time is really all one has, in the end. Your time is yours alone. When you sign that W-4 form, you are signing away a part of yourself. Suddenly, the clock is no longer your friend: you must be somewhere at a specific time, for reasons that have nothing to do with your own wants or whims. And you must stay there until certain goals, that may have nothing to do with your own life plan, are achieved.
This is the essence of employment. You no longer have things on your own terms; rather, The System dictates. And you no longer get to choose your company, as you have all winter long (as Covid has allowed). Now you are forced to associate with co-workers and probably with customers — tourists. Your co-workers may be friends, but probably are just associates; the tourists are definitely strangers.
Something chemical happens when you interact with strangers, as opposed to friends — or your dog. We all have our peculiarities and quirks, which, for the most part, seem reasonable in our own eyes. We rarely laugh at ourselves, do we? But now we are reminded of these things by others. People may even pass judgment on your hair style or your manner of dress. Perhaps you are even forced into a uniform. Your accent or manner of speech may draw comment. Worse, your ideas and opinions. And perhaps the pace at which you move has to be altered in order to accommodate The System. These are all necessary trade-offs for employment. It is, after all, why you get paid. We must sacrifice for our daily bread.
But there is another way to look at this scenario, beyond sacrifice. Work can also be seen as a kind of rescue — taking us out of ourselves. Simply put, work can take our minds off our problems. Each of us has his or her own level of comfort with our selves, with our thoughts and ideas, but at some point concern becomes obsession.
If we live in isolation, our reality can be distorted, with no checks from the outside world. (This is also so if we use only social media of our own choosing — the so-called echo chamber.) Work forces us to leave our personal perspectives, or at least put them on hold, and take in those of others. It may force us to put our ideas on trial, to test them against reality, to void stereotypical thinking, to see people as individuals and not types. Work can change us.
We may even on occasion watch and listen to others and observe new models of dealing with life. This week I observed the nonchalant bravery of a disabled person, the unalloyed joy of a parent for a child, the quiet intimacy of old friends listening to each other, the consideration of a young person for an older one (and that was me). I have watched someone performing his simple job with utmost care, without drawing any attention to himself. I heard a sincere apology.
There is so much out there to learn, if we only look and listen.
Everybody knows the Jean-Paul Sartre line from No Exit: “Hell is other people.” But few know another statement of his: “Heaven is each other.”