Everyone has their cross to bear, and work seems to be mine. Does work, worrying-about-work-jobs-losing-getting-jobs occupy other people’s thoughts to the unnecessary degree that it does mine? In literature and movies, the big challenge is finding a life partner, cancer or Alzheimer’s; no one ever appears to worry-overmuch about jobs and work. In fact, most don’t appear to even need to actually show up at work and are always available for endless hours untangling relationships with friends, parents, boyfriends. Even people in some high-stress fields like medicine are concerned most with the travails of love. Is this just stupid-TV or is that how most people’s brains work – is 90% of most people’s brains devoted to the state of their relationships, with work merely the steady background hum of their brains?
My brain, in contrast, has solid neural pathways connecting work and anxiety, and anything (even something previously enjoyable) that acquires the trappings of work (pay for instance) immediately invokes anxiety. And if I look closely at the anxiety, it usually doesn’t even make any sense – why should I feel anxious about completing a paper when I know what needs to be done and how to do it? Why should I endlessly rerun conversations I’ve had with colleagues/bosses replaying what I should have said versus what I did say?
Is it possible to retrain ones brain so that a new pathway is built connecting work to, say excitement or calm? My romance books are full of people who throw themselves into work to avoid dealing with personal stuff: for these people work invokes calm rather than fear; it is an escape How did that happen for them?
On the few occasions when a serendipitous blend of God-prayer-meditation scraped off the layers of anxiety about work, I’ve discovered a well of excitement, ideas and creativity – so many things I want to make, do, write about, buried under all that anxiety.
For a hellish 2 years I was a housewife – this was not out of choice but because of some random crazy visa issue (is there any other kind?) – and with every day without some well-defined-busyness-making-task before me, I felt myself getting smaller. I’m skinny and brown and soft-spoken, and in groups, it is easy to forget I exist. High-status work is the only sure-fire way I’ve found to counteract this effect. It is a curious problem to have – having a job makes me anxious and miserable about my work, but not having one makes me disappear. And I remember another one like me – my neighbor, another H4-visa wife, a Pharmacist in India, a housewife in the U.S. – she would sleep for days on end, the house dark even mid-afternoon, but would tell me that she was happy being a housewife and has no beef with the H4-visa rules that kept her from a job, even as she disappeared before my eyes, since her memories of her job were anxiety-ridden.
I read recently about how American’s commitment to work and the centrality of work for their identity has risen along with the increase in layoffs, temporary work, unpaid work . And the stories in this piece had a familiar desperate-clinging quality to it, with people who’d been laid off multiple times avowing their death-do-us-apart commitment to their jobs – “I give 150% to my work,” others gave 200%, 300%…an arms race for what you would give for a job. This makes no sense and is as irrational as me putting my family through hoops to hold onto a job that I know will boot me out with only the slightest of pangs, and drumming into my son the importance of working hard. Has working hard ever really helped anyone? I know we all think it helps, but are there concrete examples of good stuff that happened because of hard work? When I think back on my life, all the good stuff that happened, happened because of some combination of serendipity, showing-up, and being-at-the-right-place, and which I sometimes later spun into a story of hard-work and ability.