Friday, January 21, 2011

Watershed years

I was writing to a friend the other day and used the term ’watershed year’ to describe the effect that 2010 has had on me. 2010 was a watershed year for me. It simply means that it was a turning point in my life. So many things happened that were out of my control, and the more I tried to control the chaos, the worse it got. So I let go. There are years like that, and for me, the years 1985, 2001 and 2010 have been those types of years. 1985 was a year that was filled with loss— people I thought I could trust betrayed me, and my father and my cat passed away. It was also a wake-up call to pay attention to my life, to ‘not cast my pearls before swine’ as the New Testament so aptly puts it. 2001 was another watershed year. I woke up to the fact that there really are people in the world who hate the USA and who hate Americans so intensely that they will do whatever it takes to destroy them. I watched the Towers come down on September 11 and a part of me died that day. My belief in the goodness of the world died that day. Watching so many people die in that manner was horrific, and it was made all the more horrific by the fact that I experienced it from Europe and could not be in my country at that time to help or to serve. I cannot watch video footage of that day without reliving the horror. So now I understand in a small way how it must be for war veterans, who actually fought the battles and dealt with the daily horrors, and who try to forget them and go on with their lives. How can you ever really truly forget? My experience is miniscule by comparison, a drop in the bucket of suffering. I learned what empathy means in a whole new way. And I also learned that people could suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome years after the fact, and that it is a real condition that causes continuous suffering to good people. 2001 was the year I became an American for real, to my core. I never knew what that meant before. It was also the year I lost my mother, another intense blow.

2010 was not like these years; it was the year I truly woke up to the treachery of the work world and to what it meant to worship at the altar of a false god. I finally understood what that means after many years of hearing that expression. And I did not lose my job as did others I know who have been treated like cast-offs by their workplaces. Michael Moore hit the nail on the head in ‘Capitalism, A Love Story’ when he accuses Wall Street firms of crimes against the people. He has mega-guts. And he tells it like it is. I had already begun to suspect that the work world wasn’t all it was cracked up to be a few years ago when I wrote a book about passive-aggressive bosses and their negative impact on workers and workplaces. But even after writing my book I still had the ‘belief’ (or hope?) that it could all work out given the right set of circumstances. Now I know, just like I know that it is right that some relationships should end because they are hazardous for a person to continue to be in, that it is also right that some beliefs should wither and die, because to hang onto them serves no one. But like letting go of a bad personal relationship, letting go of a bad work relationship involves a grieving process. It means dealing with the loss of your belief in what you have devoted yourself to for years on end. It means changing your focus and giving up loyalty to your workplace and giving up caring about and nurturing your workplace goal. It means redefining yourself, and as one of my unemployed friends in the USA said to me recently, “if I hear from one more person that you should just ‘redefine yourself’ once more, I’m going to vomit”. Why? Because it’s not easy to ‘just’ redefine yourself. It’s not a magic process whereby you snap your fingers and whoosh, you’re a new and improved person, like Samantha could do in ‘Bewitched’. How cool would that be, to be able to do that? No, for us mortals, it involves tears, sorrow, bitching, more tears, more bitching, ranting, and raving. And those who can do all these things, who can get their feelings out, are the lucky ones, ultimately. What about the people who keep it all bottled up inside? How do they deal with it? If one is lucky, over the course of some months or even years, acceptance begins to rear its head. Resignation also enters the picture. A pragmatic view of personal expectations versus how realistic the outcome of those expectations will be in your workplace emerges. You realize that some people win and others lose. That’s how it works. We cannot all be winners. But you also learn that looking at the world in terms of who wins and who loses is a pointless effort. Who cares ultimately? It reminds me of grammar school all over again; those who got the A’s were the winners. But all these years later, who really remembers that or cares? It’s what you’ve done in the meantime with your life that counts. And even if your workplace deems you to be a person it no longer needs or cares about, it cannot take from you your accomplishments, successes, contributions or service to that workplace. In short, it cannot destroy what you meant for them, and if it tries, it should be destroyed in turn. No workplace should be allowed to re-write its history in a vacuum. It cannot just wipe the slate and start over after getting rid of those it no longer wants or needs. It should also be forced to ‘deal’ with loss, to grieve over those losses, and to learn from them, just like the employees who worked for them have had to do.

So what have I learned from all that happened in 2010? What have I learned from all my conversations with others in my position or from those who have lost their jobs? To start with, learn to develop a thick skin. Try not to take it all personally, even though it may feel like a personal attack. But learn to wean yourself off the ‘loyalty’ addiction. Don’t cast your pearls before swine. Be very careful to whom you give your loyalty, your focus, your devotion, your time, and your energy. If this is good advice on the personal relationship front, it’s good advice on the workplace front. Like some people, some workplaces are simply not worth your efforts. And that’s worth finding out, even if you find out the hard way.

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