observations and opinion
Sundays at the office. Why do I come here? Ostensibly, to get some work done. I love the walk, a 5K hike which doesn’t fit the weekday schedule. And I can play music loudly, there’s no one here to bother, or to bother me.
Well, there used to be. There used to be Polly. She was far enough down the hall that my tunes would never disturb her peace, but there was the inevitable mid-afternoon collision at the kitchen to make tea. Polly was here most Sundays, and most evenings, and many Saturdays. Polly worked damned hard.
But Polly doesn’t work here anymore. She quit.
She quit because she couldn’t work here, and not work here. She quit because, she didn’t know how to stop working. She loved the clients, loved their problems, loved calming their worries, loved figuring out solutions. She loved being trusted, she loved being the one her bosses went to. She loved the work.
Except that she hated it.
She didn’t know how to stop. Whether she was addicted to the work (which is what it looked like from the outside) or was simply in too much demand – demand she couldn’t hold off – Polly was drowning. Just a year or so into the practice, she found herself at the bottom of a swimming pool, looking up at the bright skin of the water. Everything above the surface was distorted, blue and bent. And she did not, as it turned out, have gills.
So Polly climbed out of the pool. Three weeks ago she gave her notice, worked 16 hour days to tie up the loose ends and disappeared into her future (another job, but with the promise of a different workload). We haven’t seen her since and, I suspect we won’t be seeing her again.
From where I sit, in my office on a Sunday not actually doing what people pay me for, I see that Polly was never going to be “happy” until she pulled herself out. The gravitational pull of work, its intricacies, its duties and its rewards (many of them undetectable emotional ones) was too much – there was no half-way for her.
You’re may be living the same way. What this young woman experienced at work, we all feel someplace: if not at the top of an office tower on Sunday evenings, then at home, in a college residence, in a gang or a shopping mall. We are immersed in a culture, a culture we cannot see but which pressures and shapes and influences us, intimately, invisibly and inevitably.
Poke your belly. If you feel a nice flat set of muscles, well good for you – especially if you live in North America. If your finger sank into your tummy a little, or a lot, you’re in good company: Westerners, North Americans in particular, are the most over-fed, under-exercised, overweight human beings in the history of the world. That’s a record we are likely to keep, too – until next year, when we break the record again.
From where I sit, it seems to me almost miraculous that we’re not ALL fat by now. Unless you live on a farm, or in the vicinity of a Whole Food Store, it is almost impossible to eat on my continent without being subjected to massive doses of sugar, carbs, fats and other chubbifying ingredients.
People live in that culture, yet don’t recognize its power. Many feel a profound sense of failure at their inability to stay, or get, skinny (women in particular of course, thanks to our crazy-making cultural caricature of them). It’s laudable to take personal responsibility for one’s circumstances, and necessary if you want to change anything – but in doing so a person has to recognize the full reality of the situation. Here’s the reality of the situation:
We are swimming in a sea of fat.
Yes, it’s like someone is pumping blobs of animal fat into the ambient air. We breathe it in, we are immersed in it, everywhere. It floods us and there is no escape. And that, I suspect, is the largest reason why so many of us are, well, so large.
Swimming in a sea of fat – that’s where you are, North American friend. If somehow you can manage to stay dry (even for a few minutes), you are resisting the gravitational pull of an entire culture. But if, like most people, you’re a little “damp” it’s no surprise.
Like the gang member who learns violence, as with the drug addict or alcoholic, or the bureaucrat who forgets how to speak plainly, or the young lawyer who can’t stay away from her desk – whoever you are and whatever your situation – you’re probably up to your neck in something. And that’s a very uncomfortable feeling. It’s a trap, it makes it hard to breathe.
Yet we seldom stop to see just what we’re buried in. However successful or accomplished you may be, the far horizon of incomplete hopes and dreams will haunt you. And if, God forbid, you’re struggling – well that’s much worse. The fat, the failing, the under-employed, the addicted, the teenaged – they’ve all been dropped into the deep end and told to swim.
And there’s always someone standing nearby, to mock you while you splash around. Worse, North American culture asks you to hate yourself, for your real or imagined imperfections. And you know what people do who hate themselves? They eat a tub of ice cream and watch reality TV. Or they blame someone else for their problems.
But here’s the thing: you don’t have to hate yourself for what you cannot be, for what you cannot do, for what you cannot stop doing (yet). You don’t have to hate anyone else, either. What you have to do, is show yourself some compassion. Because it’s not all your fault.
The truth of which, unfortunately, doesn’t take you off the hook for changing. It just gives you a chance to.