“It is simply impossible that people should remain
unaffected by what they pass through.
Joys and sorrows, failures and successes,
pains and pleasures, disappointments and gratifications,
meetings and partings, experiences great and small,
insensibly do their part in making us interiorly what we are.”
~ Octavius Frothingham, The Hidden Life
collected wisdom of work life
A memory remaining with me from a teaching job past came to mind today. I had spent many hours of my own time helping the college chaplain complete his doctoral dissertation. He was a great friend, and that particular experience was intensely pressured, yet I was glad to have been able to give of my expertise. I had opened the library during a holiday just for us to print out his final four hundred page document. The chaplain looked exhausted and uncharacteristically unsure of himself. In the midst of those final editorial steps, I looked up and asked, “John, what makes us work so hard?” Without stopping to think, he bluntly replied, “Fear.” His response was entirely comprehensible to me, as it made sense to much of my own general experience. Admitting to being motivated by fear of failure exposes a side of life beneath standard office veneers.
Our lives at our various jobs reveal personal histories replete with scenarios, casts of characters, and moments of discovery. And stories. One of the factory jobs I’ve had was in a poultry processing plant. On the conveyor line, I heard the ex-cons’ adventures, the crazy guy that clucked like a chicken, and the lifers who had spent years and years slicing and packaging ad infinitum. I found the latter unimaginable. I once had a graveyard shift job, from 8pm to 8am, in a newspaper pressroom. My benchmates and I called 3am “the hour of delirium,” indicating the point at which our fatigue would take us through a dizziness before the human afterburners could take hold. During those times, we would laugh at our absurd hilarity. I had a bench-mate who would growl: “You know why I work here? I come here to burn off all my meanness!” His daytime hobby was to hike along railroad tracks and birdwatch.
During my years in commercial photography and industrial darkrooms, I worked with some eccentric and compelling souls, but unanimously and unfortunately under crude and exploitive management. Among the former were many artists, a hard-travelled rock band photographer, a dachshund breeder, an antiquarian auctioneer, and an Irish singer. The latter was a scourging succession comprising a relentlessly boorish ex-drill sergeant, a pilferer, and a rotation of aloof and abusive hard-drinkers. Adult schoolyard bullies. The one notable compliment, following years of consistent face-saving and time-defying achievement, was when I was referred to as “a vital cog in this machine.” Simply by proximity and some common goals, we learn about our co-workers’ lives, and care about them, too. Life is a very strange business that puts us shoulder to shoulder with individuals and settings we could not have imagined.
arenas and stages
I worked for more than 12 high-pressured years
in and around this tiny underground space.
The walls and ceilings were painted black,
to prevent any stray light reflections.
Work environments can be as enigmatic and fascinating as the cast of characters. Recalling the odors of loading docks, truck-fumed warehouses, store cellars, damp film-developing chambers, library attics, a cement storage area called “the dungeon,” a textile processing area called “the pit,” and the dry cold of a subterranean archive vault, my thoughts return to glimpse the words, pictures, and persistent forlorn aspirations of a songbird in a thornbush. Surely, from countless narrow hotplated coffeebreak rooms and cinderblocked crevasses, there dwell souls athirst for worlds of vast skies and lifegiving music. No less a personality than Saint Augustine, in the early 5th century, articulated creation’s basic desire to thrive. In his brilliant City of God, he observed how the simplest creatures such as worms and plants “show in every movement that they can make that they long to live and escape destruction.” Indeed, the hunger for more of life transcends temporal hardships:
“Merely to exist is, by the very nature of things, so pleasant that in itself it is enough to make even the wretched unwilling to die; for, even when they are conscious of the their misery, what they want to put an end to is not themselves but the misery.”
Remembering the family saying, le travail est de l’or (“work is as precious as gold”), I consciously cherish employment. Though a many-edged sword, I’m especially grateful for work as I dispatch my recurrent bills. But work is truly a treasured life element. Somehow, it is oddly natural and normal for all of us to grouse and grumble about our obligations. In the peculiar scheme of creation, humans are the ones that complain, satirize, and then set about to build the better mousetrap. Through history there are centuries of work songs, such as sea chanties, cloth-making chants, railroad and mine workers’ blues. As our days are spent at our jobs, under pressure to solve and produce, we are generally in our most lucid moments while at work. Alas, there are enough reminders to inform us to take those hours on duty with enhanced seriousness. The postmodern job demands gravitas, candor, and multitasking prowess with precision. All the while, as I’ve learned, all the workplace is a stage- and a thinking writer’s trove.
aspirations and perfectionism
The employment context is an arena through which we must make sense of our own times and the ways our work is valued. Though we develop marketable skills directed at leverage into sustaining income, there abides soul and conscience. Creative drive parallels paths of personal growth. While satisfying employers and fulfilling required tasks, the source of life from within hungers to transcend repetitive duties. Doing a good job is to excel in the present. Aspiring beyond cellars and conveyors is to aim at the future. Inherent in the progress of the soul is to aspire for better while living an ambition in the present. As the Holy Spirit’s action within effects the practice of faith, the hidden life of understated work is at the foundation of outward interaction with the whole of life.
An individual’s voyage through places of work navigates corporations, small businesses, varied definitions of profit, training sessions, and high-wire acts to prevent from being unemployed. Altruism is always hard to find, and it is for each of us to decide whether to make that an expectation. “Good business,” so we’re told, is when the worker’s productive worth exceeds how much they are paid. Yet, we take notice when there are news stories about “the best places to work,” marveling at morale-building perks and overtly informal atmospheres. Should work environments match life hopes, or is it sufficient to leave the job at work when signing out for the day?
My lengthening pilgrimage as a laborer began at 14, working in a grocery store in New York City. The store owner wore sunglasses all the time, and made me pay for an egg I had accidentally dropped. From there, I went on to a much larger store, delivering groceries to neighborhood customers. Since those high school years, surviving layoffs twice, each transition has been a reach for something better- and in Maine these have been very small steps. Embedded within the hidden life of an individual in a workplace are the often inexplicable dynamics of endurance and transition. My father always tells me that “you have to job-hunt throughout your career.” He reminds me to never expect sympathetic sentiments from an employer, while he always speaks of his own working experience with much sentimentality. “You will find,” he says, “that the higher up you advance, the less hard you’ll have to work.” I’m not so sure this is true for a postmodern. Or perhaps I’m not far “up” enough from hauling eggs and produce out of sidewalk bulkheads, or hauling cibachrome prints out of clenched darkrooms, and so on.
Considering the life pursuits of work and betterment causes me to revisit an old obstacle known as perfectionism. With a personal history tied to exclusion, and without privilege, a learned habit of trying to fit into situations by virtue of excelling had long ago ground a groove of perfectionism. Getting the job done rarely suffices, neither does getting more of the job done. Requirements broaden to increasing coverage, and getting it done continues to be insufficient. Such comprehension takes some getting used-to, as does some self-preserving degree of desensitizing. Yet simultaneously, the Spirit within prevents the soul afire from resorting to cynicism. Divine consolation and humility surely help to supply what is missing from thankless environs.
The old adage that “the pursuit of better is the enemy of good” meets its match in workplaces. Perfection in the fulfillment of all details, either outlined or assumed, leads to survival. Perfection, especially in a market replete with the unemployed and the underemployed, is requisite in order to be offered a position. Certainly, I am merely one among a great many of all of us, perplexed into the night hours by denials of opportunities for which experience squarely meets the need. Not perfect enough, evidently; or too young, too old, too local, too ethnic, too eclectic, too unknown, or just plain too plain. Whatever the reasons may be that keep each hopeful Moses out of the Canaans of their wishes, the ways of a surreal side of real life remind us of our coexistence with irony. Living in the minus side of perfect finds tremendous challenge amidst the ethos of unconditional love, justification by faith, and Christ’s acceptance of every embrace-returning soul into present and eternal belonging.
The first page of my first journal, writing about the instant the light is removed from the workspace,
and how I often worked with closed eyes.
During a lunch break, I decided to walk a wide circle around my general vicinity. From my musings, my attention turned to notice delivery, transportation, construction, and retail workers. Many of these dutiful souls struggle, too. Many of them also determine how to reckon with their days, and each of them have hopes- all with lives far too grand for the confining pages of curricula vitae.
redeeming the trials
In the fluidity of our times, we must by necessity maintain clear visibility. It is indeed as a lesson in spirituality to practice scrupulous diligence in the present, while preparing to ascend awaiting prospects. Arguably, there may not be a greater challenge than to bloom where one is planted. Even further, to thrive ungrudgingly. In such situations, history may assist. Remember how peace can be found in hostile circumstances, and how each of us have accomplished that in the past. When the Divine hand of providence cannot be felt, think of times of deliverance past from what seemed helplessly unendurable. When anxiously wondering when the road will turn, I must recall when it actually has done so before. At the same time, my memories invoke the names and words of admirable individuals from jobs past, lives witnessed that continue strengthening mine.
Inevitably, there remains a reckoning with the temporal aspects of our journeying. This is not to say there isn’t profound meaning in the strata of our hidden lives in the service of our work. Meaning is enhanced by learning, and more writing needs to be done from the context of work trenches; it can’t all be about corporate management. Consider how our words often come from our work, as do our existential conflicts. Our patchworked experiences are treasure-troves of situations and interactions from which to glean stories and perspectives. Enduring truths are surely found between clock punches. Anxiousness, alas, does not hasten prospects; each day has cares of its own, and that causes me to maintain the moment of the day. There’s work to be done; look at the time. From this hidden life come unifying and far reaching tests of faith and trust. In all settings and ages, patience must be continually learned, and forgiveness must be continually applied. Living is not confined to the marginal edges that trim the work day; the soul is alive throughout, wherever we have our being. As well, our efforts permit for us to live in solidarity with those around us: those we work for, work with, or work to serve. It is the hidden life of a grain of leaven, a mustard seed, a latent silver halide.