Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Personal Lives

By Jove, I think he's got it! Michael Lerner, writing in the book Surplus Powerlessness, circa 1986:

One reason why people don't get more upset about the pain of work is because they tend to accept the myth that Personal Life will make up for it all. Personal Life will be their compensation for the frustration of work, for the powerlessness they experience in their unions and in the political arena, and for the absence of any larger sense of purpose and meaning in life. "Don't worry about this area of Public Life," we are told, "because you can't expect anything in that sphere. But there will be a magical reward, a terrific Relationship that will make up for all your other deprivations.

...The locus of the fantasy that someone will come along and make everything OK changes with age...The content of the fantasy, however, remains constant. We are going to have a very deep and meaningful relationship with some person who will make the pain go away, who will make up for all the crap we have had to suffer through in the rest of our lives.

...Most people spend most of their waking hours at work and in transit to and from work. It should be no surprise, then, that the ways people come to feel about themselves at work, the sense of powerlessness, frustration and self-blame...has a deep and profound impact on how they feel about themselves in the remaining waking hours when they are not at work. The stress that they experience in the work world and the self-blaming that typically accompanies it, cannot be taken off like so many dirty clothes and thrown into the washing machine, while the real self suddenly emerges untainted and undisturbed. (pgs 73-75)

And one more good passage (among quite a few):

Moreover, the people entering these relationships are increasingly facing a world of work that is alienating and oppressive and stressful...They are encouraged by the dominant culture to expect that each individual relationship will provide a compensation for the world of work. Any given relationship must become the meaning and purpose of life-- for people who have not been able to find meaning and purpose at work and who find their larger communities of meaning appearing increasingly problematic and abandoned. (pg. 92)

Lately, I've been reading every book I can get my hands on about work (especially books that someone is calling "trenchant" on the front cover). I needed to find out why an exciting, challenging job ended up feeling like hell on earth, and I needed to find out if I had any right to be skeptical about some of our society's least-questioned norms (answer: we all do). For a long time, I had a feeling that our experience at work is intimately related to our attitudes about sex and relationships, but it's rare to see this connection made in such uncertain terms as it's made in Surplus Powerlessness. I don't accept the myth that "Personal Life", or a romantic relationship, will make it up for it all, so I DO get extremely upset about the pain of work. I've been told that I tend towards unhappiness due to my lack of myths about the world. However, it's no easier to force yourself to believe a myth than to try to be sexual as an asexual. You just know that something's not quite right.

Of course, it's worth noting that while we're pressured to find some solace in Personal Lives, our employers don't want us to have one--why would they? To quote the CEO of a large company that employs many people in my area (and whose name I am somehow wary to mention, considering I use their blogging tool...suffice it to say it rhymes with "Snoogle"):

The goal is to strip away everything that gets in our employees’ way. We provide a standard package of fringe benefits, but on top of that are first-class dining facilities, gyms, laundry rooms, massage rooms, haircuts, carwashes, dry cleaning, commuting buses – just about anything a hardworking employee might want. Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.

This is supposed to sound like a good thing, a benefit. But I find the statement a little scary. Isn't a lot of what "gets in employees' way" stuff like relationships and interests outside of work? It seems like the more our Personal Lives shrink, the more they are expected to save us from the chronic stress of work (or, let's not forget, looking for work).

As a wise person once said, "The workplace is not a social service agency". It's a very rare employer who will actually care if their employees are happy. I work at a nonprofit and no one seems to care if I am so angry about being ignored and shut down that I cannot do my job properly, which just creates more stress. If this is the case at an organization that is supposed to care deeply about the human element, why would a corporation give a damn? Why don't we tend to do much to change these situations? According to Lerner, it's because we feel powerless, because we feel our workplace stress and hostility is just our own personal problem that would be fixed if we learned to "cope" better. Uh, no. Lerner wants us to be open about the issues we face, in relationships and on the job, so that people will realize that there are larger social forces at play and stop blaming themselves for everything lacking in their lives. Oddly enough, being asexual has encouraged me to do just that.


.::STELLA*DELLA::. said...

Well I know all of this first hand. Ive had men in and out of my life and It got me to thinking how pathetic i must be even though I knew it wasnt me but in my mind ...i was thinking the blame had to go somewhere and here i was alone again so it has to be me. I have been out of work since january...depression, bi polar disorder....suicidal.....ugh I remember last working and it was just horrid because it was with mortgages and not a thing was getting better and not to mention my personal life was as it is now, complete shit. Idk finding the balance between work and personal life seems to be never ending for a lot of people. I guess its just if you choose to live or not.



Janet S. said...

Great quotes, though it was a little disheartening. I've recently been pondering the relationship between work and personal health, especially because my hard work often results in muscle aches and physical pain. I'm considering how I might balance work and personal life so that I can feel more stable. I expect this might be a difficult endeavor, requiring me to reorient myself to the world.

By the way, if you haven't yet read it... you should take a look at "Queer Phenomenology" by Sara Ahmed. I think you would enjoy it.

Ily said...

Unemployment is SO hard. When I was unemployed, I got to a point when I didn't want to meet new people because they are always asking "what do you do?" and I just didn't want to deal with it. (However, a friend of mine who's lived in other countries claims that the emphasis on what job you have isn't a global thing-- I guess that's good to know.)

I think "phenomenology" is one of those words I've looked up 10 times and still can't remember the definition of. Hopefully if I read that book it'll finally stick :-)

It's all a little depressing, but for me, reading something very close to my own thoughts in a book is sort of exhilarating. Lerner thinks things can change, but only after prolonged and difficult struggle-- fuuuun!

Noskcaj Llahsram said...

This post makes me sad.

I have to say though I understand, I've tried to tell people why it is so incredibly difficult for me to stick with job I find... distasteful, I can't understand how people can so separate themselves from what their job makes them feel, while still using it as, dare I say, the centrepiece of their self image.
P.S. Depression sucks, I'm going through a stint now, not fun.