reflections on having a permanent job

May 24, 2014

For over six years in the midst of the Irish recession I struggled and strived when it came to work. Short, badly paid contracts, long bouts of unemployment, course after course, thousands of unanswered job applications. Occasional interviews where confused executives asked why such a well educated person was applying to be a secretary. Pleading with restaurant owners for a waitress position, only to be told I “would never stay”; dropping my CV into MacDonalds, Tesco and local cleaning companies. All to no avail. Crying, depression, despair, hopelessness. Anger.

Now, I have a secure job that almost certainly will, later, lead to another secure job, and instead of the job being the thing that I want it to be, it simply is the thing that it is.

Having a meaningful job, due to the not-having, became something that lost all proper perspective for me. It seemed so impossible and so out of reach. Others around me suffered the same fate but they floated to the back of my consciousness, while my employed and career-focused friends were right there at the fore, living lives of purpose and meaning and enjoying the fruits of their labours. It became the holy grail for me: the promised land. It became the answer to my sense of desperate unfulfilment.

And now, for the precise reason that I packed up and left the country of my birth, I have the elusive job, and suddenly it’s possible and within reach, and I am living the possibility and touching it, and it’s not the holy grail and nor is it fulfilling. It is a job, that is worthwhile, and I do it, and I feel tired after it, and I get the Sunday night dread, and we still count every penny each month to make the rent (while, admittedly, padding the fund for The Grand Summer Holiday – something not enjoyed in a few years).

Undoubtedly I am far less unhappy than before. But, you know, the job is being put back in its place. Where it should have remained all along, instead of becoming bloated with years of swollen anxieties about paying the bills and having worth as a human being.

It is terribly wrong when a person cannot find labour to fund their living. It is morally wrong when a society has been so ordered that their search becomes pointless. It corrodes a bit of that person: it really rots your interior life. I had times where I almost gave up looking and resigned myself to staying on the dole forever. Shortly before landing this job, I suggested to my husband that I simply stop looking. I felt I was approaching a nervous breakdown due to the unflagging disappointments and perhaps needed to allow myself to become a housewife. Have some children and keep a house. He said that was okay by him – he’d watched me suffer and fail for a long time. But then I remembered that we have moved to another country so that he can do something that requires someone else to be working. And so I kept seeking. And lo I did find. But as for those who have stopped seeking? I understand why. I do, and deeply. Looking for a job in the midst of a recession is like spending every waking hour scouring the floor, walls and ceiling of a pitch black tunnel for treasure, all the while knowing that there’s only enough treasure hidden in this tunnel for one tenth of those who are looking for it. It’s tedious, lonely and exhausting beyond compare. And you begin to despise yourself. What is wrong with me? you ask, over and over, year after year. Nothing, say your family and friends. You’re great! I’d give you a job if I had one!

As usual I am not sure what my point is. I wish I could wind my reflections into neat little packages, but I never can. I think I have said what I came here to say. It is good to have a job. It is bad to not have a job. But having a job is just having a job. It isn’t changing the world and it doesn’t address your deepest self, whose worth comes from somewhere else. So, you know. Remember that.

 

 


i had to put this somewhere

February 9, 2014

where my bruised reeds at? he says, looking for the walking wounded, the bent-over men and women, the smoldering wicks. where are my people who don’t even know up from down anymore, who can no more suss out what is sustainable than they can solve the problems of the world? where are my people at, he says, the ones who are beating back addictions, dysfunctions, lies that slink in and out around our ears? those are my people, he says, the ones i will not break. they are the ones i will not snuff out.

~ D.L Mayfield: mercy > sacrifice


it’s a rich man’s world

January 12, 2013

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.


there are no foreign lands…

November 3, 2012

… It is the traveler only who is foreign. ~ RL Stevenson

When I was a kid, my parents used to run market stalls on a Saturday or Sunday. We’d load up the car and the trailer the night before, covering our wares with canvas sheeting to keep off the inevitable rain, then rising at 4am to travel to the site and get our stall set up. There was a kind of rustic magic in the whole process. Despite being such unglamorous work, there is something a bit special about working in a market, particularly a working-class market. Cold hands, tea from a thermos, chips from a dirty van with a generator. Rain, chatter, coins. I loved it. I was also free to make my own money if I sourced my own product. I raided my childhood book collection and sold them all off for fifty pence or a pound apiece. Bonus.

My parents however weren’t doing it for the love of it: they were doing it out of sheer necessity. We used to pull in seventy pounds (€90) on an average day: this was around 1993-1998. That was nothing to be sneezed at for a low-income family and easily bought food and household groceries for the four of us for a week.

There was a single element that ever marred it for me. There were some people who regularly showed up at the markets who, I was warned, were violent thieves: people to be watched, but avoided, and certainly never to be crossed. I nervously sidestepped their kids, preferring to wander by myself, and avoided lingering at their stalls. These people were travellers or, as my entire family and community referred to them, knackers.

And just once, a traveller man threatened to beat my dad up if we set up our stall on a patch he had earmarked for himself.

The story above is the single negative experience I have for you from my experience with the travelling community.

This bright Saturday morning, a traveller and his son were extremely kind towards my husband and me. They did us an unnecessary favour that has had a very pleasant pay-off. That’s not all that surprising, because as I am now an adult, and free to decide about people for myself, I have had many positive experiences with the travelling community, and have found them to be, well, human beings. Beautiful, broken, normal. No longer an unknown entity to be feared and avoided; “othered”. There is nothing profound in any of this.

I just wanted to make the little point that it is a welcome relief to be unburdened of my prejudices. It’s a relief to be able to tell people apart and not view them as a type. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be the recipient of their grace and kindness. Being unburdened of prejudice means getting primed for love. This is part of what Christians call “sanctification” – being made more and more like God in his extravagant welcome. It’s good, like.


today i am thinking about

September 30, 2012

power.

Thirst for power really is at the root of so much of what is profoundly wrong with us. We want to control everything, and history seems to suggest that we will do whatever it takes to wrestle power from others.

Every day in the prison I watch men destroy themselves and the lives of their peers and loved ones in the pursuit of power. Gaining a foothold becomes particularly important when you have been rendered powerless in the ordinary sense. Thus, the more insecure we are, the more we seek power. Men ritually cut off contact entirely with partners and children, to send the message that they are not willing to be manipulated by the dangling carrot of potential visitation rights, as long as the mother is steering the ship. Others will only attend group events if they can direct the proceedings. And nowhere else have I seen gossip and lies multiply at such rapid-fire speed (I was even at the centre of a pretty funny – and entirely fabricated – rumour myself), so that even reality itself becomes subject to the manipulation and control of certain inmates. Today I had a long conversation with a troubled chap who was attacked recently by another inmate, about his agony over how to respond. His impulse is revenge. His impulse is to save face, and more importantly, to find a response that will ward off future attacks. But in his core he is drawn to forgive, but is frightened of the consequences. Because forgiveness is to give up power and pay the cost yourself.

One the one hand, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to assert and protect our dignity – each other’s dignity. But how to do so without grasping at power and control – the desire to be top dog, the desire to be seen to be strong, unflappable, unperturbed? Even the desire to be cool (aren’t we sad?). What does this dignity look like?

Being a Christian, if I can be reductionist here, seems to me at this point to be largely about surrendering power. Laying aside reputation. Laying aside approval from others. Laying aside the (sometimes overwhelming) urge to put others ‘in their place’. Laying aside war and revenge and violence. Laying aside the need to be seen to be right, coherent, important, successful, attractive, credible. Laying aside the self.

This only becomes possible when we are no longer insecure, no longer self-loathing, no longer afraid. And thus there is this dichotomy at play, wherein we discover our deepest humanity at the points of deepest vulnerability and surrender. We find peace within ourselves when we give up these selfsame selves. I believe it was some sandle-wearing hippy who said that whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life, will find it. And it seems he wasn’t above that himself, either.

Oh to communicate this to my own heart, and to all the hearts broken by the need for power! What if we just…let go?

 

 


a short note on violence and non-violence

August 21, 2012

I have kicked and struggled my way towards accepting pacifism. It is not a rational position, although one reaches it rationally. It is fundamentally a spiritual proposition rather than intellectual one. But, I am digressing already.

When I was a child, I had a vulnerable older brother who was bullied physically and verbally a lot. Possibly as a result of this, my parents taught me from my pre-school days that if anyone were to hit me, I was to hit them back twice as hard. The twice as hard bit was important. This strategy worked extremely well for me and I rarely had any trouble.

It was a morally wrong way to live.

This morning I was walking to work when a crowd of still-drunk male teenagers began to approach on the horizon. They were wearing tuxedoes. It is the wrong time of year for debs balls, so I can only assume it was a post-Leaving Cert result graduation party. It was just before 8 in the morning and the party clearly was not yet over. One of them had a stack of free Metro newspapers in his hands (stolen, I suspect, from the friendly woman at the train station who dispenses them every morning). At a distance of about twenty feet, he called out to offer me one. I politely refused (ah the Metro, the great leveller, that I never read). He began to insist and as we drew level, he changed his course and began to actually follow me, continuing an unrelenting stream of slightly sinister Mrs. Doyle-like shenanigans. I lost patience, stopped, turned to look him in the face and said loudly and clearly, “FUCK. OFF.” He did so. Result.

And this is why non-violence is at even the smallest level is difficult. It is, temporarily at least, effective.

Doesn’t stop it being wrong, though.


why i hate talk of ‘leadership’

August 19, 2012

In the odd subculture of Irish evangelicalism, the buzzword of the minute is leadership. Its buzz, sadly, is lingering long. The reason the church is in decline? The answer’s not sin, or hypocrisy, or apathy, or lack of discipleship, or obsession with cool, or rampant materialism and greed. It’s all down to a lack of leadership apparently. There are regular conferences on how to encourage church members into leadership, on ‘leadership development’ and on how to manipulate young people into becoming leaders in their communities. The church takes advice on this topic from literally anywhere that will offer it, but seems to be a bitch (in particular) to the business and corporate world, imagining perhaps that if the church can imitate the success of ‘big business’ then it might gain a little cultural cache or social capital.

If you want the church to be respected by the world around it then you’ve lost the plot entirely.

Frankly I consider all this talk of leadership to be bullshit. The church worships a God whose leadership was demonstrated in his willingness to wash the feet of others, eat with prostitutes and ultimately hang on a tree, battered and bloody, begging for an alternative. His leadership was demonstrated in his willingness to place last. His leadership was demonstrated in self-denial, teaching and rich relationships.

Being a human being means that life will be dirty, messy, sad, hard and yes, complicated. Being a Christian does not need to be complicated.  Being a Christian means that in the middle of all the absolute shit, you relentlessly love God and love others, and everything else can go to hell.

Don’t get sucked into conversations about ‘vision’ and ‘strategy’ and any context where your church is referred to as an ‘organization’. Instead get sucked into permanent relationships with saints who will challenge you by their integrity and love you by their presence. Get sucked into the scriptures. Get sucked into repentance, humility and allowing your decisions about your money and career to scare the crap out of you. Get sucked into coming last and if you just can’t help but win everything, at least share your winnings with the losers.