I was watching TV last night when on-screen a conversation about William Blake took place, and immediately I felt a yearning. I want to talk about William Blake. And Goethe too, and Beethoven and Kierkegaard and Kandinsky and Einstein and David Lean and about expressionism and the civil rights movement and forms of government and great moments in history and thought and ever fucking so on.
At that moment, there was a sudden realisation of how everything is so small. It’s hardly a new thought, but it’s fresher now because without the distractions and white noise of so-called normal life what is exposed in lockdown are the skeletal forms of everyday life. And the truth of it is, so much of it is repetitive and mindless ritual, time served until it runs out.
That’s a bleak take on things, and it’s not all that bad, especially not when you plug in the lifestyle elements – the distractions and white noise – that otherwise obscure the bare realities. That’s not all bad stuff, but not a lot of it has substance.
You could argue that I’ve been wrestling with these concepts most of my adult life. I felt it inside, but for much of that time, I was removed from it in a personal sense, because I found the distractions necessary to keep me going. Some remain – reading and good food and provocative cinema. Others have gone by the wayside, the obvious, and possibly most critical, being international travel. Once it fueled, perhaps erroneously, my sense of identity. I would travel every year and go deep – but now I haven’t travelled anywhere for about seven years.
For others, it’s family, and that’s something of true substance and value. I imagine it fills up most of the empty spaces and as for identity, then you assume traditional and well-defined roles as partner and parent. All that is ritual too, but it has meaning.
Then there’s work. For the healthy of us, work is a subset of who we are, rather than a definition of it. It’s rare, however, that work doesn’t play some part in how we see ourselves. Given we spend so much time in the job, it would be surprising if it wasn’t a factor, but it also is one of the great distractors.
This has played on my mind for the last few years, and last night it was the first thing that came to me when I considered how small things have become. It wasn’t always the case. I took a lot from work and career in general, and I worked through that in my mind as I sat on the couch last night.
I like to define and categorise things. I like things to have their place, though I know full well that life is not nearly as neat and tidy as that, and that nonsense and absurdity – as well as chance and caprice – play a big part in how our lives play out. Nonetheless…
I was always very ambitious, very driven. I’ve noted all this before so you can take it as read. I wanted to move forward, if for no other reason that I wanted to test myself and to feel the rush of wind in my hair. That’s not the case anymore.
I sat there and defined it, separating out the strands in terms of ego, which plays a huge part in all of this. It’s the fire that burns in us, but if we don’t ply it with fuel it dies down. This is what has happened to me.
I separated ego into two strands, the structural and the tactical, though they might be better understood as the professional and the personal.
The structural/professional is how you see yourself in relation to others within a work environment. It’s a broader, longer journey. There’s a ladder and you want to climb it. You plot and strive, imagining yourself achieving higher professional goals and attaining ever-greater rewards. It’s competitive in the sense of how driven you are to surpass your professional rivals. It’s about recognition and your place in the world. Sense of self and sheer prestige are wrapped up in this also.
The tactical/personal is more everyday, moment to moment. It’s how you react and respond to challenges and stimuli on a personal level. It’s how ego interplays in your direct relationships with others, strangers, as well as friends and loved ones. How much we are prepared to set aside, and how much we feel the need to assert.
I was always ‘strong’ – if that’s the term – in both of these. Now, it seems, I have little real interest in the structural/professional. It’s no more than habit and knee jerk reaction. I think in my mind that this is what I should be or do, but it’s the residue of former times when it throbbed of its own accord.
I was so directed then, though to be fair, while I was competitive, I never really saw others as my rivals. I always thought I was better. I applied myself to surpassing the job itself. My interest in that now is no more than theoretical – I’ve done it before, I know I can do it again, I feel no need to prove it because, when it comes down to it, I have no real interest in it anymore.
I think the tactical/personal ego is just as strong as ever, and it plays a part in how people see me. I guess much of it becomes your persona. It’s problematic in some ways. I think most people see me as very capable. They believe I’m confident, and I’m certainly more assertive than average. I speak and act with a level of authority, and so the natural assumption is that I’m made for bigger things, and that’s what I want. I wonder, though. In myself, the private me, I have grave doubts about much of this. I’m coming to the point where I think I should just let go.
Without the professional ego raging in me I have no burning desire to achieve outside of the very practical need to set myself up for retirement, if possible. There’s none of me in it anymore and it leaves a big gap.
My sole motivations these days, outside the practical, are to do the best I can because there’s meaning in effort and competence; and, related really, to provide fair value for reward.
That second gives me some leeway because for a long time now they’ve been getting more out of me than I get from them. The solution has always been to match the rewards to effort, but perhaps what’s now more consistent with what I feel is that I reduce my effort to match reward.
I’m not sure if I can dial down so easily. It’s not as if I set my effort to a value – I just give everything I have. By giving everything I have though leaves little left for me. And in a time when I’m conscious of a lack, I probably need to set myself to gain/regain what I don’t have – which means making space for it.
I have a meeting with my manager this afternoon where I intend on following up on the discussions we had weeks ago about my future. If he tells me that yes, here it is, I’ll probably accept it. But if that’s not the case, as I expect, I’m mulling over telling him that I’m going to dial things back. Basically, expect less of me.
Given the mental health challenges of recent times, this might be the most sensible thing I could do: I need to take a break from the job for myself. And, if I can, need to find those things that warm me inside and give meaning to what I do. Conversation and affection are much of it, and a place in the world.