Lately I’ve been obsessing over careers, particularly mine but also the topic in general. I was recently offered a promotion to a management position at work that I ultimately turned down. Through the process of evaluating whether being the remote manager of a team of 50 people was a fit for me (and concluding that it isn’t, at least not right now), I had to take stock of my current situation. What, after all, do I want from my job? Do I want recognition? Status? Money?
Since I said no to the job, I’ve wanted to do nothing but sleep. I’m tired, though I’m not sure from what. It’s not as if I took the position, worked myself to the bone, then decided it was too much and quit. Rather, the idea itself seems to have been too much for me; I became exhausted by the mere prospect of it and the energy it consumed to weigh my options, making lists of pros and cons, deciding what is most important in my life now.
I’m not just relaxed and listless – I’m sleeping big drugged sleeps that come to me in lumbering waves and crush me with their weight. I awaken feeling more tired than I started, and so I have no choice but to sleep some more, even though it’ll undoubtedly just make me more tired still, like a junkie for whom one last fix inevitably leads to another. I wake up amazed by the amount I’ve slept, palpating my neck for lumps, idly wondering if I have lymphoma. (Working for cancer doctors for a decade can do this to a person; there is a cancer for every innocent symptom in the book.) Then I remember the ten pounds I gained last summer, the ones it took me all winter to lose. I dismiss the thought of lymphoma, roll over, and go back to sleep.
Oddly, whatever dissatisfaction I had in my current job before I considered the promotion seems to have evaporated along with the opportunity to make a change. Before I was offered the new position, I’d grown so impatient with my medical transcription work, which I admit can be tedious at times given my inherently restless nature, that I’d contemplated seeking out the very position I ended up turning down. Although I didn’t actively seek it out at all, when I was actually approached and offered the job, I assumed, as did everyone else, that I’d say yes. It seemed I was ready for a change, a new challenge, an opportunity. But the more thought I gave the matter, the more clear it became that I’m adequately challenged enough as it is, balancing my job, household, family, and hobbies. Now I have settled back into my “old job” gleefully, newly appreciative of the harmony it allows me to maintain in my life. My suddenly deliciously simple life.
Ambition has never been one of my attributes. Perhaps I should feel guilty about not having more of it, but in fact the only thing I feel guilty about is that I don’t feel guilty. In college I aimlessly shifted majors until life sent me in the direction of starting a family, at which time, vaguely relieved, I let go of any career goals I might have been halfheartedly harboring (a nursing degree, at the time) readily and without a backward glance. I’ve never known what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m starting to think I never will. Working in the health care field, I have been surrounded by people who have put their educations and their careers above all else, and I’m not sure how much happiness these choices have afforded them.
As if to illustrate this point, I recently learned that a former coworker of mine, someone highly educated with a license and a degree, has gotten herself into some difficulties involving narcotics, a costly transgression that may end her career. She’s not someone I’m currently in contact with, but I’ve found myself compelled to reach out to her. As if, I remind myself, what she really wants right now is for old coworkers to come crawling out of the woodwork and say – what? I hear you’ve made a big bungling mess out of your life – do you want to talk about that?
Suspicious of my own motivations for wanting to talk to her (am I some kind of inappropriate rubbernecker, ogling at the scene of an accident by the side of the road to see how bad things can really get, wanting to put my own life in perspective?), I realize that I’ve always been attracted to people who’ve led difficult lives. It’s a tendency that’s brought me as much fulfillment as it has misery. Damaged people have been chipped away at by the many traumas fate doles out – inept or outright abusive parents; a sudden tragedy; or simply a white-out snowstorm of the mind that sends them stumbling blindly into an abyss of drugs or alcohol, or crippling depression and anxiety – and what’s left after circumstances have worked them over with hammer and chisel is someone more worth knowing. A more authentic human being. Whether these people have triumphed over their situations or not, they have been forced to live from a place without veneer, without artifice. They’ve been forced to be real. It’s the realness that draws me in. I want to be close to that because it feels like the only thing that matters.
So I often find myself drawn to screwed-up people, people who have suffered trauma of one sort or another, either self-induced or circumstantial. I myself am not overly damaged, but I’ve been chipped away at a bit myself over these last few years: a brutal attack on a family member; a stupid, pointless run-in with cancer that took my mother’s life; the vacuum left behind when the housing market collapsed, a void which sucked in my husband’s lucrative career; a succession of pet losses.
Still, not knowing what to say, I don’t call my friend from the old days who has committed professional suicide, even though maybe I should. Instead I just turn the story over and over in my mind, feeling empathy for her and a sort of kinship, even though I’ve never done the things she did. Beyond all the misery getting caught has no doubt brought her, I hope it has also pushed her toward a healing of sorts. She might even be feeling relieved that it’s finally over, that who she is on the inside and who she is on the outside finally matches. There are no more secrets, no more lies.
Beneath all our pride, we desperately want to live a life of truths. Even though it’s painful, we’re secretly glad when our virtuous intentions are brought into check by our undeniable depravity and moral turpitude. We live our lives stretched taught as a piano wire, twanging under the tension of these opposing forces, caught between our desire to appear perfect and the absolute certainty that we are anything but. When the wire finally breaks, we are devastated…but we are free.
Somehow, saying no to the big career change has given me a new freedom, a new affection for the status quo. I’ve made a little more peace with my lack of ambition. My life is just fine; my career is what it is. At least it leaves me the time and energy to do the things I love: writing, gardening, tending to my family. I have chosen a career that doesn’t cause me ridiculous amounts of stress, doesn’t force me to miss out on important family moments, and doesn’t drive me to write myself illegal prescriptions to numb myself out.
So, what do I want from my job? Not power, not prestige, not even money, although I need a little bit of that to make things work. What I want is my life, this life, with all its splintery surfaces and slippery slopes, and with its rare glimpses of piercing truth. I want a job that gives me time to sit down with myself, to examine the areas that have been chipped away at, that have left me broken but also more whole, more me. And this is the job I have. It gives me time to get to know the authentic person I’ve become.