Sunday, July 11, 2010

the meaningless 9-5

“You need to speed it up,” is my boss’s favorite criticism. And he spits it out so frequently that it had lost its meaning to me. One day, though, the phrase sounded more severe than usual because he had closed the door behind him to warn me privately. This, he had never done before. Luckily, the paper I was proofreading was extremely time consuming and my boss seemed a little more understanding when he gave it a quick glance. However, he didn’t fail to remind me a second time to “speed it up” before he opened the door again. In my stomach I felt a huge urge to scream.
Melville’s character Bartleby came to mind. It’s hard to associate boldness and courage with a character whose existence revolved around inactivity. Nobody knows what it is that Bartleby liked to do, but whoever has read the story certainly knows that he never did anything he didn’t want to do. When his employer asked him to complete a task, he NEVER said he WOULDN’T do it; he just said, “I prefer not to” and left the task undone. This pattern landed him in an asylum. Ironically, Bartleby is one of literature’s most sane characters; his actions were true to what he really felt as opposed to those of us who commit ourselves to obligations that leave us unfulfilled. Aren’t we the ones who are ridiculous running around and stressing out to please people we don’t like by doing a great job on things we don’t like doing?
I suppose in the greater scheme of things we aren’t working explicitly for our boss or because we are masochists. There are things outside our lives at work that are funded by the work we do: our independence, our families, our leisure activities. But somehow, work seems to dip into these areas of our lives and while not taking them away from us exactly, it limits the degree to which we enjoy them. Our jobs make us irritable, tired and apathetic and although we have these other areas of our lives, we run out of energy to devote ourselves to them fully.
To some extent, the individual is also responsible for his lack of fulfillment; he has the time to devote to the more meaningful areas of his life and I am a strong believer of the phrase “if there is a will there is a way.” But balancing our interests and passions with our obligations takes almost superhuman discipline. However, it CAN be done. The incident with my boss happened a bit before I took off for vacation. I was rundown and exhausted because the situations in the other areas of my life had priority at that time and I decided it was work that was going to have to suffer. After spending two weeks unplugged from the system, I came back rejuvenated and determined to do what I want to do. After all, not every job is spiritually meaningless. But because we live in such a frenetic world where the system requires us to labor at work we hate doing, for people we hate doing it for, I realize I will have to slave while I pursue what I want. I enjoy living in my apartment, doing my martial arts class and going out with friends and family. And although Bartleby was right, I don’t want to end up like him.
Likewise, I don’t want to end up like my colleagues where I work now. I’m the youngest in the office and unlike them I haven’t given up on life. I still see that I have a chance to do what I want to do. I still consider myself free and I realize that I should not tether myself to a job I dislike. Life is full of stepping stones which we tread on swiftly and quickly. The point is not to get complacent with a stepping stone that seems to be only “good enough”.

Friday, July 9, 2010

man vs nature: 2 contrasting settings, 1 feeling

Ikaria has many footpaths woven into its natural settings. During our stay there, we came across a very beautiful spot a bit off one of these footpaths in Chalares Gorge, with just minimal traces of previous trekkers. There were big, white rocks to sunbathe on, clean running water to drink and swim in and the whole place seemed unearthly and foreign as an environment; it drove through my body a very powerful sensation of isolation as if we were at the edge of the world.
Looking up at the towering mountain, I felt like it could swallow me at any moment and no one would ever know. I felt small and insignificant. And not in a bad way necessarily, but it did feel scary with a tinge of excitement. And as most feelings do, this one had a physical symptom; my stomach felt the way it does when I’m going up a ladder or standing on a cliff. That sense that danger could be imminent if one slight mishap should happen, but also a joyous thrill and sense of self-satisfaction for having taken the risk. I suppose this feeling comes from being in an environment without people and our everyday appliances that have become convenient tools for survival.
Interestingly, it is not just the isolation found in nature that instigates such unusual yet pleasurable fears. Sometimes the environment of an urban area that is overpopulated and overrun by traces of man inspires an almost identical sense. While sunbathing on the rocks, taking in the beauty of nature and made giddy by the excitement and fear instilled by my surroundings, I realized it all felt very familiar. It reminded me of walking on the sidewalks of New York City.
Instead of mountains making me feel miniscule there are tall buildings and an overwhelming population. Skyscrapers hover over sidewalks, casting shadows over the city streets. They are massive, imposing and beautiful like mountains. Walking on sidewalks entails dodging many other pedestrians, each one a reminder of how many of us exist in this world. Instead of being swallowed up by nature and digested in the ravine there is that sense of getting lost in the city streets or a huge park and vanishing without a trace for whatever reason. And in this city environment, that in some ways might appear to be less pure than the seldom-trodden footpaths of Ikaria, inspires this innocent feeling of fear and excitement combined, that anything is possible from being that glamorous looking woman a few steps ahead of you, to being that homeless bum begging for change on the stoop to the left of you.
Although the feeling was so similar, in New York City it was instilled by being completely immersed in a man-made environment whereas in Ikaria it was caused by being totally removed from such an environment. Both settings possess this idea of the infinite, in nature because of its vastness and in urban areas because of its density of human existence. Both environments have their qualities that can be used to develop an individual; the urban environment provides a ground to excel materially and practically whereas nature provides grounds to develop your spiritual self by reminding us of what is actually necessary for our existence and survival and separating it from our superfluous, yet not superficial wants and desires.