On Justifying My Right to Exist

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I’ve been trying to coalesce my thoughts lately into finding some kind of grand paradigm of life.  What does it mean to live in this world, to have, to act, to be.  How do I justify my existence on this planet?  And, perhaps here’s the rub – do I even need to justify my right to live?

I feel (and of course I’m not the only one to feel this way) that our society can’t be as fragile as economics would make us think it is – that we all have to justify our right to live by working.  By having a job.  By contributing to the economy.  By producing.  Haven’t we decided that it is this very drive to continually produce that has brought us to the breaking point, in terms of the environment, in terms of poverty in the Global South, in terms of our increasingly fragmented and separated lives?  That most of us in the “developed” world work simply for the sake of working?  That we consume simply for the sake of consuming?

I, for instance, currently work at a property management company.  The whole thing is an unnecessary apparatus built around making money on the human necessity of living somewhere – of housing, of shelter, of having a place to put down your burdens and hide from the weater.  But while shelter is necessary, property management companies are not.  Even within the flawed system that we have built, property management companies are arguably unnecessary. We happen to own some buildings and people pay us for the privilege of taking shelter in them.

How is it, that in this wide and beautiful world, we can’t simply find a lovely place to set down and live? Why is everything owned?  Why must I pay someone else for the privilege of having shelter, a basic human necessity?  Because the systems were set up well before we arrived on this planet.  Your ancestors carved out a piece of land in a desirable spot.  My ancestors, for whatever reason, didn’t.  So today, because your ancestors defended their piece of land and kept it as their own, I must pay you for the privilege of existing on that land?  I just can’t understand a world where this makes sense.

Pierre Folk, "By the Silent Line"

Pierre Folk, “By the Silent Line”

Hundreds of people are employed at my company, a company whose ultimate role is unnecessary in the normal course of human existence.  But! you say, But, but, but! If those hundreds of people weren’t employed by your company, they wouldn’t have any money to consume, to live, to even exist!  My answer (which is a question) is why do we need to pay to exist?  Why do we need to justify our right to exist by working?  I don’t understand how working at something unnecessary gives me the right to more resources than someone else.  I don’t understand how people making a subsistence living, directly providing to themselves and their families only the basic necessities of life, through farming, scratching a living on the land, are entitled to less than I am, because I have a fancy job.

And then there’s growth.  Not only does my employer exist for the sole purpose of giving hundreds of people jobs and making a few people a bunch of money.  It also exists to grow itself.  I’m constantly reminded that income has to increase every year.  That operating expenses increase every year.  Thus, we have to make more money every year, not only to keep up with the increasing costs of operation, but also to make a larger margin of money.  One: why do we need to make more money every year?  Aren’t we already providing hundreds of people with jobs, as well as investors with money?  Why does this need to grow continually?  And two: why do operating expenses increase?

Operating expenses increase every year because everyone expects to make more year after year.  But! you say, But but but! things increase in cost every year!  Why? I ask, in answer.  The earth’s resources are still there.  None of them have inherent value – a rock is a rock, it will always be a rock, until it weathers and turns into sand.  Then the sand is still sand.  Nothing increases or decreases in value, it’s all just matter.  Value is something that we have ascribed to specific things in our environment.  Oil taken from the ground is still the same oil one day to the next, but we ascribe different values to it depending on the day, or even the hour.  When there’s lots of oil, there’s lots.  When there’s not very much oil, there’s not very much.  We ascribe value to scarcity, but that doesn’t mean that scarce oil is inherently more or less valuable than plentiful oil.  It just is.  It exists.  It doesn’t have to justify its own existence.

My problem is that everyone is trying to make money from necessities, and trying to make more money from scarcity.  But this is a paradigm that can’t continue to exist – it doesn’t take a lot of work to see that!  We ascribe more value to scarce oil, so more people try to make money off of it, taking more and more of it out of the ground.  What is the end result here? No  more oil.

And I can’t quite get past the fact that everything we need for everyday life is monetized.  You pay a water bill.  A gas bill to keep you warm through winter.  You pay rent/property taxes/mortgage to keep yourself sheltered.  You pay the grocery store for food.  And you pay all of this through money that was given to you in exchange for working at a job.  You pay this money to other people who are paid for working at a job.  Thousands – millions(?) – of people are given jobs and paid for managing the oversight of payment between people.  Similar numbers of people are employed and paid for overseeing these people, and others for overseeing the overseeers.  Who is actually providing the necessities of life in this system?  Who is growing the vegetables? Who is pulling the water from the ground?  Obviously some people are, but they are a vast, vast minority within the overall population.

v0_master[1]

I’d like to suggest an alternative model to the way we currently live.  But I can’t.  I can’t come up with a grand unifying theory for the way that society should be organized.  I can’t change the fact that we are all given jobs, that we are all given value, that every resource on this planet is given value, that some people own resources and other people don’t, that we are allowed to exist because we participate in the system.

However, I think I can try to find a way not to be a part of the system itself.  But even that might be too difficult.  Perhaps I can find a way not to participate in the system as much as possible.

The first, and most obvious step, would be to find a way to subsist without reliance on money, on working, on justifying my right to exist.  But even this seems impossible.

The fact that I still cooperate with the system, by working at this job, makes me an integral part of the problem.  But the problem is, I don’t know how to separate myself; and even if I did, I don’t know if I would want to.  Giving up a privileged position in an unequal society is difficult.  Otherwise everyone would do it.  And those who don’t have the privilege I do might be unable to separate themselves from the system, because everything they do, every moment of their day, is focussed on keeping themselves and their families alive.

Debatte über Atomausstieg

The only thing I really know is that when I look around, I can see that the system we have built isn’t worth the toll it is taking on the planet and every living thing on it, including humanity.  I don’t know what the answer is, but I know it isn’t this.

On Time, Timing, and the Dark Beast

Time

Somehow, time has gotten away from me.

It started innocently enough. I put off certain projects at work, because they could wait. I whiled away my time on the internet, drinking an inordinate amount of coffee, obsessively organizing and re-organizing my files and cleaning my desk. It can always be done later, I thought with increasing anxiety. Eventually the thought of doing the work became too much. Deadlines loomed. Then they passed. No one else seemed to notice, so I kept putting off my work for tomorrow, for next week, for next month, at least. Next month, I assured myself, I would be ready to finally face that task.

And here I find myself in October, trying to get a handle on July’s work. It’s all a little bit too much.

For the past ten or so years, I have struggled with suicidal ideation. It’s rarely been that serious – mainly passing thoughts that would make me crushingly depressed. It sounds bad, but at least there was usually little danger that I would take initiative and act out these dark fantasies. A couple times got fairly serious, usually preceded by a panic attack or, on two unhappy occasions, by medication disasters. The past five years have been relatively stable, however, with few episodes.

Unfortunately, the dark beast is back. I sometimes like to think of my depression as a dark beast, although it’s often hard to distinguish my core, central being from depression in that way. Looking on my mental health objectively, I can usually pinpoint where the dark beast lies, where he breeds, where he mangles things. But from within, it’s difficult to think of my depression as something separate from myself. It’s not a question of having depression, but rather of being depressed.

Twas Brilling

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

The timing is more than a little inconvenient. I’ve started a new job. I’ve just bought a house that I plan on renovating. I’m at the tail end of my twenties, typically a time when one is expected to do something with one’s life.

Resources on dealing with mental health problems are surprisingly scarce, despite all the lip service being given to mental health issues lately. My doctor recommended that I see a psychologist. There is exactly one psychologist in the region where I live – a region that serves at least 200,000 people. This psychologist charges $150 an hour. I’m balking at the price, and I know that even if I do decide to go see this apparently miraculous psychologist, I will mostly be focussed on how every minute is costing me $2.50, instead of focussing on delving into the deepest recesses of my diseased brain in order to solve this problem (is that what one does with a psychologist?).

Instead, I’ve discovered a new therapy that is $150/hour cheaper and at least effective enough to keep me from lashing out at my coworkers and running naked down the streets: self-affirmation blogs. Apparently I can be anyone I want to be, if only I believe it! The world is my oyster! I should just do what I love and never look back! The time I’ve wasted poring over self-help blogs, greedily staring at the screen as if it were a lifeline, is actually a little disgusting. Of course, if I hadn’t been spending all that time reading about how I am a special, unique and beautiful flower, I would probably have spent it hating myself into a grief coma.

Self Affirmations

#9: I radiate whatever is the opposite of self-loathing.

But all of the self-affirmation in the world hasn’t enabled me to kick hating myself.

There, I said it. I hate myself. I’m not really sure why. At times, I think that I am a rather pleasant fellow, fairly easy to get along with. I don’t steal or cheat (at least, not very much). I’ve never murdered anyone, I don’t make a habit of breaking very many of the ten commandments (although I might have a problem with a few of the seven deadly sins). I like to have deep discussions with people, and learn about them and listen to them. But these qualities don’t seem to matter very much lately. I find myself intolerable, and I’m not quite sure why.

Sure, everything could be easily attributed to my diagnosis of depression. Self-hate seems a fairly classic symptom. But even if it is only a symptom of my depressive brain, I have to think that the self-hate has come from somewhere. It is so very specific, a hate so very intense, that it doesn’t seem like it could have popped out of nowhere.

(And, let’s be honest, no one likes the narrative that ends in “it was all in his head! None if it was real! It was all a dream! etc.” I’m looking at you, Lost and other disappointing TV shows, books and movies. It’s cheap and lazy writing.)

Lost

Haha, turns out they were dead the whole time! There is no reason for anything!

The thing is, my brain can’t seem to give me any breaks. Men are supposed to think about sex a ridiculous number of times a day, according to someone, probably Freud (or Kinsey?). My brain has decided also to focus on the reasons why I hate myself a similar number of times a day. Driving to work, thinking about the coming day, watching the fields of corn and wheat and beans fly past, and all of a sudden – no one will ever love you, because you are disgusting. Thanks, brain. Trying to get my expense report finished, checking my receipts and pulling my hair – you are an awful human being, and you should just die. Well, then. That kind of makes the whole filling-out-the-expense-reports thing unnecessary.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that such thoughts can put an unnecessary burden on one’s day. You don’t usually go through everyday life worrying about the human condition, thinking about the inevitability of death, and knowing that nothing really matters. Because, well, why would we do anything? Why would we bother filling out our forms, doing our work, talking to fellow human beings? Why on earth would I show initiative at work if all I could think about was the banality of my existence?

So the problem, then, is that the intense hate has started to bleed into other aspects of my life. Sure, self-hating is one thing. But now it’s getting difficult not to hate everything else around me. The stapler, for instance, really bothered me today for some reason. Stupid stapler, just sitting there, not doing anything useful. I was seized with a desire to throw it across the copy room. Other days it has been my cat, whining at the top of the stairs. Others it has been the cars speeding along the road outside my window. And still others, it has been the people around me.

The woman who shares my cubicle is my parents’ age, and likes to speak about nothing. She is perhaps the least interesting person in this city. She does nothing with her evenings and weekends except for cleaning – and she tells me all about it. I have heard – in depth – the specific way in which she vacuums her carpets. Last weekend, she cleaned her bathroom. I learned that Lysol is her favourite cleaner. She wipes the tub in a circular motion, because it cleans better that way. She did the shower, the sink, the toilet – and, oh no, she certainly did not forget the floors! This is just one room. I heard about the specifics of what she cleaned in every room in her whole goddamned house. My head might literally – literally – explode.

This is not an advertisement for the Lysol family of products.  If someone from Lysol would like to contact me to make such an arrangement, however, I would not turn down a licensing deal.

This is not an advertisement for the Lysol family of products. If someone from Lysol would like to contact me to make such an arrangement, however, I would not turn down a licensing deal.

And so mild annoyance has mushroomed into hatred, a hatred that gets so intense some days that my hands start shaking.

The dark beast is cunning. I’m engaging all my energies to fight it.

Alice

Sorry, Alice. The flamingo does not have any answers.

On Owing

Working in an office carries more unexpected challenges than I ever would have thought.  The shifting alliances between coworkers, up to and including outright social warfare, was an aspect that I knew would be there, but I never expected it to be as consuming as it is.  Similarly, I always knew that one should keep up appearances – but I never knew just how deep the superficial judgment of one’s coworkers went.  Maybe it’s because my current office is so small, but I find that just about everything I do is noticed and commented upon.  What am I eating for lunch? Oh, interesting.  It seems unhealthy and/or expensive and/or cheap and/or indicative of whether I am a good cook at home.  Is this the kind of pen I prefer to use on a regular basis? Why is my desk so messy? And, conversely, when I clean up my workspace, why is it so clean? Don’t I have any work to do?  It also doesn’t help that the secretary has no sense of personal boundaries, and so comes in to my office periodically to shift papers around, strategically hide air fresheners (do I smell that bad?), and generally feng shui my chairs, table, filing cabinets, and the things on my desk.

I'm not sure which poles she points to when rearranging the contents of my desk, but I think it's not working: my wealth corner is not as full as it could be.

The Feng Shui Wheel: I’m not sure which poles she points to when rearranging the contents of my desk, but I think it’s not working: my wealth corner is not as full as it could be.

Conflict is something that stresses me out more than it probably should.  Even the conflict occurring between others.  The ‘outright social warfare’ that I mentioned isn’t hyperbole.  Two of my office mates do not get along, although their conflict is currently being couched in strange displays of friendship.  These two coworkers have even taking to buying each other gifts, showily lugging pots of flowers through the front door, making sure everyone notices, and then plopping them on each others’ desks.  The other will always find something wrong with the gift, telling us that it’s the thought that counts while ostentatiously batting flies away from their new plants.

But the most difficult terrain I’ve had to navigate is the social nicety of coffee.  There’s a Tim Hortons down the road, and several times a week someone will go down there and pick up coffees for those who want one.  I like coffee, and I often want one, but I always refuse (nicely, I hope) when they ask if they can pick something up for me.  I’m not entirely sure what brings on this prim display of manners, but from the outset, it’s seemed as though I’ve been vaguely insulting those who fetch coffee by not asking for something.  The worst part, of course, is that once I refuse Tim Hortons coffee, I can’t very well go and make some for myself in the kitchen, because I’ve already told them that I don’t feel like having any at the moment.

I think that what I’m most worried about is owing something to the people who get the coffee.  I’m never sure if I’m supposed to produce a toonie for the coffee fetcher when he comes to my desk with coffee, or if that would be insulting.  I also never carry around cash, so if the deal was that I am indeed supposed to produce a toonie, then I’d be unable to do that.  I’m not sure if, once I get coffee from someone several times, I am supposed to then go and make a trip of my own to get coffee for everyone else.  And, perhaps, herein lies the problem of manners.  Perhaps it is unmannerly to refuse coffee, because then you exclude yourself from the opportunity the other person has to do you a favour.  You’re not part of the marketplace of favours flying about the office.

The former First Lady knows where I'm coming from.

The former First Lady knows where I’m coming from.

Is it unreasonable of me to be terrified of owing something to someone? Or maybe I unconsciously already knew all of these things, and unconsciously made the decision to exclude myself from the office favour marketplace, because I don’t actually want to stick around here.  Maybe it was my unconscious way of keeping a distance.  Or conscious way of keeping a distance.  Either way, I feel that it has put me at a distance from my coworkers, and I’m not entirely sure if this is a bad thing or not.

The moral of the story is that this could all be solved if we just got a Tassimo machine for the kitchen, and people could just prepare their own coffees – even with Tim Hortons Tassimo coffee disks.  Disclaimer: This is not an advertisement for Tassimo; but I do believe that Tassimo is the solution.  Now if only there were a solution to the gift-giving enemies, and perhaps a privacy filter on what I bring to work for lunch.

I am in no way affiliated with the Tassimo Corporation, nor do I speak for them when I say that they are likely a global force for world peace.  Office peace, at least.

I am in no way affiliated with the Tassimo Corporation, nor do I speak for them when I say that they are likely a global force for world peace. Office peace, at least.

Writing to please your mother

Job and his Family - William Blake

Job and his Family – William Blake

After posting the short essay I wrote for my Grandmother, I went ahead and shared it on Facebook.  It got a fantastic response from my family, as well as from people I’d never met who had been touched by my Grandmother in some way.  It was really neat to get such a response to my writing.  But it also produced a near anxiety attack for me because I had alerted the world of Facebook – namely, my family, friends, and acquaintances who have computers – to my blog.

Despite the fact that the sole purpose, seemingly, of a blog is to share your writing, before now I had never been quick to let people know that I do, in fact, blog.  Several people said to me, “I didn’t know you had a blog!”  And my response, at least in my head, was: you weren’t supposed to know that I had a blog.  It’s not because I don’t like these people, or that I don’t want them to see my writing; it’s because one of my biggest fears, and biggest causes of writer’s block, is self-censorship.

Writing requires a certain degree of freedom.  Sure, you should always keep your intended audience in mind when writing – writing is, after all, meant to have an audience, unless it’s a diary.  But my intended audience never includes my family – or, to be precise, my mother.  I love my mom, and I want her to be proud of me, as everyone does.  But to worry about what your Mom will think when she reads your work is the surest way to censor yourself.

But this is a quirk of mine that needs to be nipped in the bud.  I want the people in my life to read my work.  If you’re reading this, Mom, it really has nothing to do with you personally.  I think it’s more the idea of Mom; the worry that people will read into your work a certain amount of autobiography, and the worry that they will judge you.

I honestly don’t know how memoirists do it.  David Sedaris, for instance, mines his life unscrupulously for writing material.  All of his family members appear in his work, at their best and at their worst.  And we all carry around a certain amount of family baggage, but I’m not sure I’m ready to unpack that baggage (if I can continue an already shaky analogy) and show it to the world.  At least, not the world that my family inhabits.

Anyway.  Here’s to pretending that your mother doesn’t read your work, and then asking her later what she thought of it.

Or: A Moment of Sudden Clarity

blake_8

So I’m not enjoying my job.  I’m not sure if I will enjoy it sometime in the future, but right now it blows.  I’ve also had some rejection letters from five of the ten grad schools I’ve applied to.  And yet, I had a moment of clarity today that seemed to make things all right.

I like writing, and I feel, more than ever, that I am a writer.  I don’t know if I’m an academic.  I certainly enjoy going to classes, and I usually get good grades.  But I find essays a chore.  Shouldn’t you enjoy writing essays if you’re a true academic?  I often tell myself that I just haven’t found my thing yet, the piece of literature that will inspire me to write volumes.  But this is probably my way of trying to ignore the truth staring down at me.  School is probably no longer the place for me.  And, as far as current work is concerned, it appears that the workplace isn’t the place for me either.

When I was about eighteen and struggling through my first years of university, a good friend tried something on me.  He knew that I had no idea what my future career would be – and, being an engineer, he felt that this wasn’t a good thing.  So he asked me: if you could do anything, right now, for the next five or ten years, what would it be?  The idea of the question is to get you thinking about what you should be doing to prepare for your dream career.  Maybe you would say that you want to fiddle around with machines and get them working and figure out the intricacies of how they work.  Or maybe you would say that you want to help people.  My answer was unexpected.  I didn’t know that the purpose of the answer was to figure out your career path, so I just answered, honestly, what I wanted to do.  What I said was something along the lines of: I want to explore little towns and the countryside and just see what they’re like.  I want to go everywhere and see how people live, and what things are like in different places.  This was the jist of it – I wish I could remember precisely what I said, but this about covers it.  Unfortunately, you can’t make much of a career out of exploring just for the sake of exploring.

I like to remind myself of my friend’s career-choosing tactic every once in a while.  What do you really want to do with your time?  Right now, I think it’s still exploring – but also writing.  Writing about what I find, and especially writing about the impressions and feelings I get when I explore.  Luckily, I think that, for now, my job allows me to get a paycheque while also exploring from time to time.  So maybe, for once, I’m actually in the right place for where I need to be right now.

Mont St-MichelUrnes

(Two on my list: Mont-St-Michel and Urnes Stave Church)

In Memoriam: Betty Wells (1921-2013)

Grandma

I’ve collected a bunch of pictures and memories on my desk, trying to make sense of them. And I can’t help thinking of Grandma’s boxes upon boxes of memories. Photos of every child and grandchild, and every trip she and Grandpa took. Boxes of old calendars, of days going back well before I was born, the collected minutiae of Grandma’s everyday life. Trinkets and toys and programs and brochures, everything collected and saved. A bag full of wishbones, hundreds of chicken dinners memorialized by drying and brittle bones. A napkin collection, magazines, drawers full of milk bags: Grandma collected these too. The random scraps of paper and litter that I’ve collected on my desk in order to conjure up something of the Grandmother I knew represent a fairly pitiful collection in comparison to all of Grandma’s collections.

I was sitting with Grandma at her kitchen table one day, when we lived in Guelph, and when Grandma was having to downsize yet again. Someone had pulled out a box full of memories for Grandma to sort through in preparation for her move to Kingston. Paper was scattered across her table and littering her chairs, and I had to move some of them in order to find a place to sit down.

She held an old photograph of her high school class back in Grimsby. Although it was black and white, the young people in the photo were captured in crisp, perfect detail. I found a much younger Betty quickly enough, her bright smile holding nothing back. She looked like she couldn’t be happier than just standing outside with her classmates that day. Others in the picture were sullen or bored or shy to smile. But Betty let her light shine.

Grandma told me about the other kids in her class, the ones whose names she could still remember. That photograph still sits somewhere in the back of mind, and often I will return to it, marveling at how young everyone looked, how they were all destined for so many different things. How, although young and bright and just new to the adult world, many would go off to war only a year later. How most of them were gone now. But especially, I return to that smile I know so well, Betty’s smile, Grandma’s smile.

When I was twenty-one, I moved back home because I got sick. I love my family very much, and I also like not having to cook for myself, but I felt so defeated. I had gone out into the world and failed, and had to come back. Around that time, Grandma and I started what became a weekly ritual: we went out for dinner at the Golden Griddle every Wednesday. When I first started taking her out, I felt noble, like I was sacrificing a night out of my very busy schedule to take out my Grandmother.

Instead of a sacrifice, though, those nights with Grandma gave me strength. I learned a lot about her life, yes, but we talked even more about me. Grandma was always interested in what I was doing, even if even I found what I was doing boring. I tested out my theories of the world on her. Among her many strengths, Grandma was a fantastic conversationalist. She had all the tricks up her sleeve. Even if something seems like a cold, hard fact, go and tell it to Grandma, and she will find a way to refute it, all for the sake of a good discussion.

I learned how not very different I was from her; she had herself flunked out of university, and had done just fine with her life, all things considered. Grandma, even in her frailty, radiated strength. And, harnessing that strength, I was able to go back out into the world and try again.

The most important moments I spent with grandma are ones that I can’t remember because they were so ordinary. Perhaps this is why the scattered bits of paper and photos on my desk elicit no emotion in me. Instead, to remember grandma, all I need to do is look at life with unfailing optimism. To sit and enjoy a conversation, and maybe even start a gentle discussion by playing the devil’s advocate. To just sit and watch the birds, watch the children, to watch life pass by in its endless seasons and endless beauty.

 

Dealing with moments of crippling self-doubt

Or maybe there’s no way to deal with these moments.  Bring on the day.

And, there’s this:

Don’t Forget the Straws

It’s been one of those days. Turns out that the promotion dangled in front of me last week isn’t as fantastic as I originally thought. Not as much money, slightly different (and more boring) work than they told me, and a heavy expectation of me making a commitment at some point.

I feel like hiding under my desk, for no real reason in particular, just that I feel like I don’t belong, and am monumentally unsuited to the tasks these people are giving me. My office mate is out sick for the day, so I might hide under her desk, as it is less visible from the hall.

Hiding under a desk 

I always wonder how people manage to live their lives without going crazy.  Insanity seems inevitable.  And I’m kind of looking forward to the day I go insane.  It sounds like great fun.

EDIT: I’m not spiraling, a typical reaction for me, which is good.  I’m just blocked, creatively and professionally, and I’m hoping it will end soon.