Thursday, February 21, 2008

Working, a meditation

The protestant work ethic killed my father.

At least, that's what I spent a long time thinking. It might still be true but I'll admit that my perspective has changed a bit.

I originally got my work ethic from him. He owned his own business -- three at once for a time, actually, worked his butt off building homes and running both a sporting goods store and a trophy store in separate locations. When he decided to sell the construction business and combine sporting goods and trophies into one, he took me for a long walk with him so that I could help him work out the best decision. I think I was seven or eight, but Dad talked to me like another adult, laying out the pros and cons, asking my opinion. I'd like to think I made some good points, but if all I did was act as a sounding board, I'm content.

He wouldn't let me start working for him until I was ten. Let, I note: I'd been begging him for years before then. I worked on my tenth birthday, for two hours, pricing socks. I was so proud of the four dollars I made that day, and of all the things I got done for my father.

He'd work rain or shine, drive through snow bad enough to worry my mom, healthy or sick; when his back got bad he took up stretching and went through a couple of experimental treatments but still worked his eight, ten, twelve hour days. Now that I'm older and my back has gone the way his did, I know how much this must have hurt, but it's a man's job to work, so he did.

In my second year of college I knew that he was having some trouble with his health, but it still came as a complete surprise the night that my mother showed up to tell me he'd died. A massive heart attack, didn't even make it to the hospital, there one moment and gone the next. A sort of shock-related amnesia set in -- I still don't remember the last time I saw him, the last words we exchanged. It was years before I could remember his face.

I immediately decided that he'd worked himself to death. How else could such a strong man have succumbed? My work ethic dissolved into vague fears and, eventually, as I went from job to job and found that they all became the job I hated, into a conviction that I simply couldn't work, wasn't suited to anything involving earning money.

I kept trying. One can't simply sit around the house all day doing nothing. I worked for my mother, I worked a variety of temp jobs, I worked at another trophy store for a while. I tried a career at writing and found that I couldn't stick with that, either. Clearly I was destined never to have a job.

I left the ex knowing I'd have to work to support myself. It wasn't so bad -- but the first job I got dissolved, the second took its toll on my health until I was forced to quit, the third didn't pay enough to live on, the fourth stopped before I'd even caught up on my bills...

I was conflicted about that second job -- should I work until I physically couldn't, like my father had? Should I stop at the first sign of pain, to spare my health? Thoughts of the second led to overwhelming guilt; the path I chose led to further deterioration until I could barely walk.

I still can't judge when I'm 'sick enough' that I should go home. Guilt or pain? Money or health? Even my mother's one hard and fast rule, if you puke you stay home from school, isn't enough: my manager at work had a horribly upset stomach for a week and only missed half a day for it. If she'd stayed home, I'm sure, she'd have felt much better.

If my father had been more willing to take a day or two off of work, he'd still be alive.

Because after all, if work is just something you hate anyway, why should it lead to anything but pain?


I'm trying not to talk about my new business too much here (saving that for the other blog) but since I started it -- has it been a month already? -- I have begun to really understand my father. I work on it on my days off -- eight, ten, twelve hours. I work on it before I go to work and after I get home. I think about it in the shower, in the middle of the night, everywhere.

I knew I was hungry today, hadn't had lunch, but I just had to do one more thing -- adjust the camera a little, try another backdrop for that one necklace, touch up the wording of a description just that little bit more. I had lunch at four, because my stomach was so grumpy I was about to fall over; and right now, working on this post while making dinner, I have another window open to a blog post about what I've done today.

In fact, having reminded myself, I just spent another twenty minutes working on that...

It's absorbing me. It's consuming me. I can't stop. Is this how my father felt? Is this why he went in, day after day, in sickness and in health?

Did it kill him? Is it killing me?

Would I stop if it were...?


Nina said...

Having driven myself into permanent disability that ruined my first career, I've worked hard to find balance. I'm kind of obsessed with balance, now. It's a very useful obsession.

Kate said...

It's good to know (echoing a comment elsewhere, but far more serious) that I'm not the only one out there...

Still working on it, here. Hoping I don't break myself in the process. If I'm gonna break myself, though, I'd rather it be doing something I love, rather than working at Walmart.

Maybe that's a place to start to find my balance, come to think of it...

Thanks for helping me think about it, hun.

Jenne said...

a) not being able to stop is also a symptom of doing something you want to do.

b) Arranging your life to not-work nearly killed who you were. Would you rather be *you* and live less long, or do what you have to do in order to support yourself, as yourself?

Kate said...

a) I'm realizing that, yes. Finally, after so long with the doing what I didn't want to do.

b) Very, very true. I wish I'd seen it that way earlier but oh well. I'd rather be _me_ -- even if it kills me. It will eventually no matter what I do; none of us gets out of this alive. Might as well enjoy the ride, and damn, I am.