In a couple of weeks I will turn thirty. Since I turned eighteen, I have enjoyed a very wide and interesting and nourishing education. I have worked hard in a lot of ways and in a lot of varied jobs but I have never had a successful career. I have had bad luck with businesses closing, redundancies, etc. etc. I also had the problem of “not knowing what I wanted to do” which is quite the turd in the punchbowl of successful career-planning. I used to take the failure to establish a career quite personally but I don’t anymore, even though nothing has really changed in that area.
As you know, I’ve started a new job, albeit just for six months. It’s a managerial post and I get to work with people who’ve suffered and been to prison and had a lot of problems with addiction or bad relationships. It’s a privileged job. It’s a well paid job. And now for the first time, I am not the poorest paid member of staff on the premises. In fact I am paid less than only my boss and the CEO, and I am experiencing middle class guilt for the very first time. I am used to being the most junior member of staff: the person who earns less than everyone else.
Externally, I relate very well to colleagues who earn one third of what I earn. And my hours are twice as long as theirs and my workload is two to three times as high. But internally I am aware that many of them have needs that far outstrip my needs and yet still I bring home far more than they do. I also have colleagues with skills that I do not have, for example in accounting and payroll, who manage the payment of over 80 staff on a weekly basis, earning one third of what I earn. I find this hard to reconcile in my mind.
The other morning, one of the staff brought in a bag of fresh fruit and passed it around. I took an orange and was enjoying it until I realised that she had paid for this fruit out of her tiny income and here I was in my fur coat and Jimmy Choo shoes, chomping away on it without a thought (some details of this scene may be dramatized). I know that the solution is not to refuse small gifts, and I also know that I can’t be “paying back” small gestures, any more than I would usually do.
In my chaplaincy work at the prison, I struggle with this too. On Christmas eve I came home laden down with cards and gifts from the men. I am unable to buy gifts for them because I simply cannot buy thirty Christmas presents. And I know that it is important to them to find a way to thank me for the care that I do offer them during the year. But it is very hard to be so rich and to accept gifts from people who are relatively so poor.
I haven’t worked it out yet. I am adjusting to being in a position of power. I’ve often had the leader role in unpaid capacities, but something about taking a big pay-cheque home for being in that role is making me squirm.
Something that has not escaped me is that this role comes with responsibility to and for the other staff. In some ways this is cheering. There are a lot of ways in which I can support, encourage and bolster my colleagues towards their own success and flourishing, and I have started this good work already. I suppose I ought to focus on that.
And then there’s tithing, giving away a tenth of earnings. We do that and have tried to always do it, but giving out of guilt, or using giving as a way to alleviate a prickly conscience about being well-off is a ticket to complacency and self-righteousness. Having said that, it is still right to give. CS Lewis said we should give until it hurts.
When it comes right down to it I don’t want to give until it hurts. I just want to receive and receive and receive and not to feel bad about it.