As anyone who has changed jobs for quality-of-life reasons knows, meaning is an important part of life. Currently I work part-time for an organization that distributes scholarships to engineering students. Given my background as a yoga instructor, musician and trauma therapist, it seems an unlikely choice. I took the job for one reason: I was new to Canada, and it was offered to me. The reasons I stay, despite my doubts, are more complex.
The truth is, I often crave more meaning at work, and the fact that I hang out with people like me – people who work as therapists, life coaches, and professional change-makers – only adds to it. My urge to leave my job started about 6 months in. Once I had gotten the hang of things, I realized I could be a little more satisfied and fulfilled. But I wasn’t ready for a new job search, and I had a nagging feeling that I might learn more by staying put. So I decided to stay.
As I stayed, I started looking for meaning in other parts of my life. I wasn’t quite up for another commitment. So small changes became the rule of the day: I’ve spent more time with friends, getting to know them on a deeper level; composting more; and learning about causes I care about. Unfortunately our society is designed in such a way that it’s hard for fulltime workers to do such things, so, as a part-time worker, I feel like it’s kind of my duty.
It’s not to say that I don’t just chill sometimes – I still have days where I spend an afternoon watching 80’s fantasy movies, for example. But since I enjoy contributing to something beyond myself, and since time has a funny way of draining away into pursuits like scrolling Facebook, I do maintain a certain discipline about it.
The result has been surprisingly fulfilling. I’ve realized that for me, stressful fulltime employment, as well as complete unemployment, both took away that sweet-spot pace of living that allows you to really grow. Thanks to my sweet husband paying our rent for awhile, I can give up a little cash in exchange for time to develop myself as a friend, sustainable home-maker, and artist. Skills that I couldn’t find time for when I was fully employed, and felt guilty doing when I was broke and seeking work.
In Western society, there seems to be a terrible crisis of meaning, but I wonder if the real issue is that we lack the ability to see it when it’s staring us in the face. Even, and perhaps especially among “conscious” communities, there’s this thirst that is palpable, as people are constantly in transition into new, ostensibly more meaningful lifestyles and jobs. But there are also people who work in, say, insurance, and are still apparently quite happy and fulfilled. Having been on this quest for many years, I still struggle to just settle the fuck down and enjoy the moment, and I admire people who can (like, a lot). Perhaps the mindfulness movement’s best contribution has been show Westerners we can do just that – slow down and enjoy the taste of our food, our children’s play, or our partner’s caress – things we normally take for granted.
Perhaps Western society simply damages the way we perceive meaning – for example, in no other culture known to man has there been such a movement toward “conscious employment”, where people create work for themselves, at great financial risk, because they are so afraid of a meaningless 9-to-5 job. Now, I’ve never worked for a large corporation, so I have little room to talk. However, the engineering field does offer an interesting perspective. People used to become engineers because of a great sense of purpose in building up society – the bridges, buildings, and technology that gave us the lifestyle we have today. But many of my coworkers have remarked that this inspired motivation is strangely absent now, even in the profession’s publicity outlets – a large paycheck, it seems, is enough motivation to join the field.
It feels rather poignant to me that the profession that helped Western society arrive where it is today, has become strangely silent on its role in the future. It could be part of what has become increasingly obvious as the world’s lack of “get-it-togetherness” on climate change. Wouldn’t it seem that engineers are ideally placed to take a leading role in this? And why not shout it from the rooftops?
The whole thing, actually, reminds me of my own life. Having had the privilege to earn a master’s degree in helping people, and having been surrounded from an early age by educated, wonderfully caring people, I have nevertheless felt doubtful of my ability to actually do any good. And I don’t think I’m alone in that – as a society, I think we are deeply doubtful of our ability to tackle the enormous challenges that face us. I suspect that our collective voice is drowned out by the deafening roar of consumerism, or something. Bu tthere’s also this hazy disconnected feeling, where people are generally to busy (or something) to simply chat with someone on the elevator. Where we are so self-important that only something that hasn’t been invented yet, is worthy of our working efforts – the broken workplace, the broken country, are disposable in exchange for something new.
I don’t know the answer, so I can only refer to my own life. While I haven’t had the strength or confidence to return to being a trauma therapist, which bums me out at times, I recognize that it’s not my path right now, and there are plenty of other ways to be a good person. Making small choices every day is all any of us can ever do, and sometimes that means helping the person that’s right in front of you, or doing the task you’ve been putting off, but which is desperately needed (organizing my husband’s financial papers comes to mind). It’s important not to get too caught up in what we would do “if only” we had a different career, more time, etc.. No matter what your situation, you still have a wealth available to you, which is the opportunity to make choices every day. This is especially true if, like me, you never had to worry about your next meal. Chalk it up to having a nice, big, fatty brain (thanks evolution!!!) – as humans, we are exceptionally free, and whether that means paying for the next person’s coffee at Starbucks, changing jobs, or speaking up about something important, all of these things create an abundance of meaning – if we can only see them.