Friday, January 25, 2013

A Year of Words...

Over the last year, I’ve become quite sensitive to a few words which, when strung together in a particular order, makes me want to break skin. In truth, this sensitivity has always been simmering under the surface of my skin, but only recently has it been profitable for me to actually get to the heart of them.

“I love my job.”

This particular sentence makes me day dream about the Japanese tradition of seppuku and how it’s infinitely better than having to sit across from someone who takes pride in “loving their job.” Don’t get me wrong, loving what we do – for a living or otherwise – is the one thing that separates us from the TV-sedated robots we call a citizenry. What makes me gag, however, is the acceptance that a “job” is the highest we can aspire to despite infinite proof to the contrary.

 The unfortunate truth is that, for our whole lives, we have been told that our greatest achievement will be creating wealth for another in exchange for the comfort of a monthly salary. That monthly salary would be a great thing to work for if we were guaranteed that it would never be taken away from us – the erstwhile “government job” – and that it would be enough to give us the creature comforts we want – the high-end corporate salary. And here’s where the problem lies – in order to make that high-end corporate salary come with the security of a government job (seriously, whom are we kidding? There is no security in the corporate world!) we spend years answering to someone else, fearing consequences of our actions, drowning our frustrations in end-of-the-day drinking parties, dreading the next day of the raised eyebrow from colleagues when you land up 20 minutes late to do nothing really of significance, and continue the cycle over and over for 40 odd years of your life while planning a relaxing retirement that we will be too old to enjoy.  

Add to this messed up mix a bunch of motivational speakers encouraging us to take ‘ownership’ of companies that will fire us in a heartbeat, and self-help books exhorting us to believe that if we can’t change our circumstances, then we should learn to change ourselves so that we can find peace (Stockholm Syndrome anyone?), we have no choice but to keep plugging away, convinced that we love our jobs and that it's a good thing. 

When we were kids, we were told by our grown up parents that when we grew up, we could do whatever we wanted. We dreamed of flying and living in rooms filled with candy and not ever making our beds. In the secret spaces of our hearts, we dreamed of somehow making a difference – as an astronaut or a superhero. Not many of us thought that when we grew up, we will sit in front of a computer in a cubicle and answer to another scary grown up called “Boss”.

And that’s the tragedy – not that we “love our jobs” but that we genuinely believe that this is as good as it gets. 

“Can I come over?”

No you may not. Not unless you want to come over and talk. Just talk. Or if you want to cook me a meal. Or tell me you love me. If you’re not doing any of that, if you’re not willing to find out who I am, if you’re not willing to stay in touch (not just 30 minutes before the inevitable question), if you’re not getting me soup for when I’m ill, if you’re not sitting on the couch and reading a book while my head rests on your lap as I read another, if you’re not waking up with me in the afternoon and saying “what shall we do today?”… If you’re not doing any of that, then no, you can’t come over.

Because if you can’t handle the boring mundane bits of me, you surely don’t deserve the best of me.

 “I’m happy not doing anything…”

Oh. My. God. I know it seems a bit contradictory coming right after the job-rant, but this phrase ranks lower than the proverbial dregs in the barrel of the loser party. Why? Because the sayer of these infinitely dumb words doesn’t have the right to be ‘happy’ about doing nothing. 

Unlike what popular literature has to say, happiness while certainly being a state of zen, is also an emotion that is earned. You can’t be genuinely happy, if you are not contributing in some way. If you’re not earning a living to support your family, if you’re not creating art that makes people feel not alone, if you’re not making it possible for strangers to change their life around, if you’re not using whatever talents you have to improve the world that’s quickly going to the bottom of the heap, then you don’t have the right to bask in the ‘happiness’ that this world has given you the ability to feel.

Recently, I met an acquaintance who told me that he’s been working on a screenplay for the past few months. He told me that he had bought a few books from where he was getting a few pointers, and that he was determined to finish it before taking on a new project. I asked him how long he worked in a day. He said, ‘3-4 hours.” And what do you do with the rest of the time? “I sleep. Or watch TV. I like to just rest because I know that writing requires a calm mind.” He is married to a nurse, with a baby on the way, and he has the gall to say, “I’m happy not doing anything right now because I have to give this my best shot.”

The same day, another friend looks at me beatifically through the haze of a cigarette smoke and justifies being jobless – and not even looking – for the major part of this century by saying “It’s a miracle I’m even alive, given how much I’ve abused my body. I’m happy just sitting back and enjoying this moment.”

Noble intentions, right? All about gratitude and such? Bullshit. You don’t have the luxury of being happy when – forget the world – your own house is not in order. I’m not saying that certain activities rank higher than others, I’m just gawking at the complacency of the person who seems to be extremely comfortable wasting whatever talents s/he has been endowed with and following the path of being ‘happy.’ If people without limbs can find a purpose, if they can affect others lives for the better, if they can accomplish physical feats beyond compare, they are the ones who have earned the right to be happy not doing anything because they have already done enough.  For everyone else, it’s the easy cop-out. The internal dialogue goes something like this: “I’m happy not doing anything…

…because I don’t want to find out for a fact that I can’t. If I want something more, and I work for it, and I fail, then everyone will know that I couldn’t get what I wanted, and I would be a failure. So it’s better by and large to want nothing, because that way, with the least amount of effort, I’m likely to get it.”

And at the end of the day, I find myself wondering if we’ve made it okay as a community to train ourselves to be happy with anything… It would explain a lot, including the steady decline of the human race.

“I can’t do this.”

If at one end of the pendulum are people who don’t want to achieve more, the other end is filled to the brim with people who believe that they can’t. And it’s not just them; their most beloved believe that they can’t do it – whatever “it” is.

Just yesterday, I met a woman who had started her own little venture a few years ago – something to do with providing errand girls for working women – “Do anything that needs to be done while you go ahead and be awesome!” As a concept it was really great, and a lot of investors found themselves keen. However, a few months into it, facing challenges at the home and the work front, she finally gave it up because – as her family said – “Baby, it’s destroying you. Why don’t you just give it up if it’s so hard?”

Not one of them said, “Tell me what needs to be done, I’ll work with you.”  Sure, offers to babysit or make dinner abounded but a new venture doesn’t just need handmaidens, it needs partners to bear some of the actual weight. It’s not really their fault. In a culture that views anything that women try as a “hobby”, or something to keep them busy or just ‘silly’, we have got trained to not reach out with help because ‘it won’t last’. This becomes so deeply ingrained that often, we end up looking at ourselves through the same refracting lenses of prejudice and be absolutely certain that ‘I can’t do this.’

The truth is, no single person can do it alone. But the truth also is, the people who care about you and your dreams the most are probably not the ones you believe they are. In fact, more often than not, your closest friends and family will let you down the fastest. But the most unfortunate part of this equation is that they will make it okay for you to give up on yourself because, after all, they ‘know’ you.

 “I’m not good with people…”

Honestly speaking, I have been guilty of saying that so often in my life that this is just the karmic cycle coming back to haunt me. The simple fact is, nobody is any good with people – we just learn to fake it as well as we can because picking our way through the mine-laden miasma of emotions and intelligence is a tough one. But just like everything else in our lives, this too becomes better with practice. There is no excuse for ‘not being good with people’ particularly when all our feelings of well-being and happiness springs from the people around us – our colleagues, our friends, our families, the stranger serving us coffee. 

And there’s enough literature out there in the world to help us – in fact, most of the religious texts are in fact instruction booklets on how to deal with people. Be kind, be respectful, don’t steal your neighbor’s wife etc – all clearly written down as a guideline on how to be better at this. But, just like everything else that was written in an instruction manual, you actually have to do the things to experience the benefit. And the advantages of it are incalculable. You want a new job – boom! People.  A raise? More people. A new dress – a designer who is *drum beats* a person! You want to create wealth? What’s the biggest resource we have – gasp! People. 

The secret weapon is ofcourse the fact that no one is good at it. Some people have just spent more time practicing. 

“I’m just not the kind of person who…”

Call it what you will. At the end of the day, we end up limiting ourselves much more than we ever give ourselves credit for. Words like “money isn’t what drives me” trip out a person’s mouth usually when s/he hasn’t ever made the kind of money that would make a significant difference to anyone’s life. “I’m more of an in-the-moment kind of person” is the standard response of anyone who is asked to think about and take responsibility for more than just his / her immediate requirements of food, recreation and shopping.  “I’m best at what I’m doing” is a phrase used mostly by people who haven’t done more than the one thing in their lives and haven’t discovered their immense promise. We forget that there was a time in our lives when we weren’t sure of who we were and what we were about and those were the most adventurous and rewarding years that we look back on with the greatest affection.

But just as a few sentences have made it to my hate list, there are a few more phrases that make me light up from inside. “Don’t worry, we’ll do this together” is high up there. Not said by many, and meant by even fewer, when I look around at the unlikely people – strangers almost – who said these words to me and meant it, I’m grateful that someone out there is looking out for me. “I’d like to see where this goes..” said while holding my hand, looking into my eyes, letting me imagine a future. It didn’t last, but atleast there was a promise, an intention – something that there’s so little of these days. 

The fact is, I suppose, we all have challenges that we face internally and externally. We face disappointments and betrayals, we celebrate victories no matter how small. But one thing I’ve learned over the last year is this – While many can convince us of how worthless we are, how devoid of talent or ability, we allow no one to convince us of our worth or our immense capability. 

And that’s the biggest tragedy of it all.