Can I afford to do good?

17 Jul

eye on the prize

“A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

–Steinbeck, East of Eden

I’ve spent the last five years trying to assemble my life into a defendable state of adulthood. At the heart of this nebula, my ultimate goal: the Real Job. My boyfriend, G, hates it when I use this term—says it’s a limited way of thinking about things. I see his logic clear as day, and yet I can’t stop yearning for the shiny, tied-neatly-with-a-bow, money-laden recognition of a Real Job.

Until I found it, it was my obsession. I would mentally work over the concept for hours, navigating a barrage of familiar questions with indefinite answers: How would I get it, was I worthy of it, did I actually want it, would it be sustainable, would it be worth it, would I ever have what my parents have?

Always this central goal tethered me. I might be a full-time volunteer with Americorps, an intern at a magazine publishing house, a public school tutor, or a solopreneur—but always in transit,  striving for the coveted status of hirable in the Real Job sense. Full time, benefits, desk, chair, computer, coworkers, office supplies I needn’t purchase myself: The tangible proof that I was good enough, that my skills were real, that I could cut it.

When a Real Job finally became mine (copywriting for an electronic retailer), I was overtaken by a permeating wave of relief. The true weight of an invisible, hulking anxiety I had been carrying for years was finally recognizable. I could look at it squarely now that I had defeated it.

I knew that rent would be paid. I had an item on my resume that didn’t need copious explaining. I was in the club and everything looked sunny.

But what now? Everything is shimmying into place, yet I sense there’s something missing. The weeks march forward, projects and dramas run on a loop. A nagging question starts to pepper my thoughts. Every once in a while it nervously rattles in my mind: Is working hard and paying bills enough?

In the wake of the Great Recession, I know how I should feel. I know what people expect me to say. That I’m so grateful, I’m so lucky, I should appreciate what I have and work my way to the top. I should drop down on my knees and thank god almighty I don’t have any more student loans. But there’s something more I need, and this need—no matter how convenient it would be—won’t simply dissipate if ignored. I need something more.

A sense of contribution.

keep climbing

But is real purpose in work something everyone can afford? What about getting by? What about bills? If everyone demanded work of substance, wouldn’t our Consumption Nation fall on its face?

I recently read an article in the New York Times that interviewed a variety of higher ups from the food industry as part of its exploration of junk food and obesity. I took away three things: Food in the U.S. is a dark, dark topic; a mechanical chewer costs a whopping $40,000; and people have found a lot of creative ways to make peace with the way they’ve made their money. The executives and scientists who spent their careers firing up an obesity and diabetes epidemic were forced to look back over their contribution and square it up with the pearly gate, so to speak.

From ‘I’ve got no regrets’ to ‘I’m rebuilding karma the best I can’, each man had his own view on the ethics of his career. A response from food optimizer and industry big shot Howard Moskowitz caught my eye:

“I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature.”

Is morality a luxury? Is it something that requires affluence to attain? Must it be earned, won, or inherited? Surely it is something that is always within reach, an indelible choice. But what is the true cost of that choice, and does that cost slide up and down the scale depending on who you are? Does placing morality above other needs, desires, and pressure ever come easily?

I know that if I leave my job my position will be easily filled behind me. When you focus on this fact, it can start to sour your view of things. The machine roars on, claiming endless hours of people’s lives (or the actual life itself, such as the collapsing factory in Indonesia) in the office, sweatshop, and store.

Right now, I can’t afford to focus on how things will continue if I leave. In the short term, the important question is not can I end this, but can I live with myself? At the end of my days, will I have done any good in this world?

Do you do good at your job? Do you feel like a job that does good comes at a price?

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4 Responses to “Can I afford to do good?”

  1. Toni July 17, 2014 at 9:24 am #

    Yes and Yes.
    Everything you do comes at a price. The question is what are you getting for your investment?

    I happen to be a business consultant, but before that I worked in retail selling name brand clothing to people who probably should/could have been spending their money on other stuff, and before that, making greeting cards.
    I remember when I worked for the greeting card manufacturer, finding satisfaction in the fact that these cards would be delighting or consoling people. Retail was a bit tougher. I couldn’t set the prices and I couldn’t determine NOT to sell hyped up jeans, likely sewn by third-world children in unsafe conditions if I wanted the job. I needed the job to pay rent. Truth in reporting, I did quit that job after a year with no money in the bank and wound up selling my furniture to survive.

    Now I help businesses and organizations of all sizes/sectors do what they do a bit better, so they can make more money (profit or non-profit). Sometimes those improvements result in better wages and working conditions for the working folks and better service/value for their customers; sometimes it just helps an executive or two make a couple more million in stock options.

    I have survived, feeling morally intact by focusing on two things: 1. I don’t work for organizations that I believe are not doing something positive in the world or that I think are hurting rather than helping humankind. 2. I do my best to leave every individual I encounter feeling a little better about themselves and/or a little stronger and/or a little more appreciated.

    Maybe I’ve not had the “rocket to the sky” career others have. I never had that goal. I’ve earned a lot of money and also been broke a few times. I have learned that there are many ways to make a living and happiness is not tied to your net worth. Most importantly, the only way to live well is to do your best to do what you know is right and avoid doing what you know is wrong.

    At some point I realized that as much as my soul wished to be Mother Teresa, I wasn’t cut out for the job. I cannot even claim to be a person who volunteers regularly at church or non-profit organizations. I can however, still be kind and try to avoid hurting others. I can be honest without being hurtful. I can communicate with high intentions and try, Try, TRY not to judge others, but to understand them. We all do bad things from time to time. Usually out of fear. Try not to be afraid and help others be brave and the world will be a better place.

    • McKenzie M August 10, 2014 at 9:46 am #

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Toni. I can relate to the roller coaster of roles and contributions. You make a good point about the effect you have on the people you interact with directly in life. These connections are most certainly an opportunity to have a positive impact.

  2. lotusgreen July 17, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

    Though I’m not a religious person in any traditional way, I think it’s hard to deny that everyone has a “reason to be here.” Why else create a conjunction of genetic, cultural, and experiential uniqueness, if that very unique state is pointless? And there’s only one way to deliver whatever it is that only you can deliver: be yourself.
    I don’t mean to be trite, but there’s this little bit from e. e. cummings I used to carry around when I was a kid, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
    Not that I’m saying it’s easy (nor, obviously, is cummings), but what else is worth it? Now, I’m not foolish enough to suggest anything like selling everything and taking to the open road; that smacks more of insanity than self-fulfillment. What I am talking about might be obvious to you, or it might ask of you, as it has of me, repeatedly, to spend the time it takes to hear that voice inside, the one that can tell you exactly what you want to be doing right this minute.
    So if you can stand to, and forgive my stereotyping, cut down to the bare bones, stop buying new clothes, no new hairdos or polished nails, move to a smaller place, whatever. If the thought of doing that causes your breath to seize, that’s not for you. But it is a way to make sure what you’re doing isn’t just for the money, unless you want it to be. Only you gets to decide. Whatever you do, I hope it includes continuing to write. You do it very well, and your voice, as they say, is unique. I think it’s one many people would value hearing.

    • McKenzie M August 10, 2014 at 10:06 am #

      I appreciate your point about authenticity–that it is found through careful inner reflection–because it makes room for variety instead of forcing one correct, limiting definition of ‘good’. Each person will answer these sorts of questions differently, and feel that they are living honestly and correctly. It’s important to remember this for my own growth, as well as when interacting with people of alternate beliefs and callings that may initially strike me as mislead, harmful, corrupt.

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