“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.
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?