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We Were Supposed to Accomplish Something

Old and tired on a tortured planet

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

The holidays have passed, the days are getting longer, my cold-turned-sinus infection is finally retreating before an onslaught of medications. It is time to face the prospects, or lack thereof, presented by another year. First at hand, my recuperation requires that I return to the office without the respite of leave-taking.  It is this most mundane of facts that fills me with dread. For me, work is the recursive kabuki of an inept yet elaborate bureaucracy, the sullen resistance of certain colleagues to both logic and effort, and the capricious dictates of managers whose parochial insularity is exceeded only by their wildly inflated self-importance.

I can take off the gas cap, put my nose to fill pipe and sense the absence of vapors, much less any usable liquid. Yet this is hardly a new state of affairs. Over the years, I have managed to carry on as a cog in this Rube Goldberg contraption with the realization that employment affords me various trips, pleasant meals with friends, an adequate supply of palatable beverages and other stimulants, pain relievers, and psychoactive agents as to approximate variations in mood and affect. Indeed, even the monstrous demands of rent in Los Angeles are met by my salary, a minor miracle I am reminded of daily as I pass by Angelenos who lack shelter of any sort. Of course, keeping myself moderately distracted and comfortably housed makes working an immediate and enduring necessity. Any alternatives, all of which offer less compensation, seem ill advised.

The work itself isn’t the problem, but there is a painful aesthetic that pervades the organization. Our innumerable and overlapping review processes always devolve into contests among reviewers to demonstrate the intricacies and impressiveness of their individual concerns and thought processes. Our finished products have so many asides and digressions that reading one of our reports leaves the reader befuddled and exhausted. Everyone in a position of responsibility seems hell-bent on increasing their status and influence, while offering daily pronouncements on the need for efficiency and clarity in all our efforts. It has become something of a perverse comfort that I have been repeatedly passed over for promotion while receiving accolades for my insights and performance.

The icing on this cake of despair is that in the dog days of early August I will complete passage of my sixtieth orbit of this poor, tortured planet as one of its innumerable and unremarkable occupants. The end of the trail has appeared on the horizon, and is drawn into sharper relief at the crest of each hill. In my field, with its noble sounding titles and objectives, we were supposed to accomplish something, to preserve possibilities for future generations. It seems we have only chipped away at the margins a bit, and our efforts are easily undone by the louts now in charge. At times, I can almost hear the slight sound of a spade slicing sod, so that the grass may be set aside and returned to cover my final resting place. I’m reminded of a song I first heard as an adolescent on the AM radio in my father’s pickup truck as I practiced driving on dirt roads in preparation for the illusory promise of freedom that would be a driver’s license. It was the first time I felt I had seen beyond the veil adults held up to shield us from their reality. With sultry cynicism Peggy Lee asked, “Is that all there is?”


Old and in the way


Dear . . . Old,

I cringe slightly to use your pseudonym, and I would be quick to remind you that—for better or worse—you might live to be 120 given the general trends of gerontology. But it is good manners to address someone in the terms they’ve used to introduce themselves.

It would be presumptuous of me as a mercurial millennial artistic type (I’m not yet dealing with wrinkles and I don’t have a real job) to advise you on matters of the proper adult rat-race ennui. Then again, I am very presumptuous—otherwise I would be unable to fulfill my duties as an advice columnist.

And being an advice columnist, I’m also pretty skeptical of the utility of Standpoint Theory when it comes to personal problems, as I believe an outside perspective sometimes provides a better angle from which to assess the conditions of things. There’s a David Foster Wallace speech that sums up the limitations of an individual’s experience and reflection pretty well; Wallace tells an old dad-joke about a fish who doesn’t know he’s in water, likening the primitive-brained obliviousness of a fish to contemporary human solipsism. The modern moment has us so immersed in our own narcissism and ideology that we take for granted the conditions that produce our moods, temperaments, general demeanor—and sometimes even our personalities. Thus Wallace recommends you always keep in mind that stuff like the existential alienation of the daily grind is something you are swimming in, not something you are: “It is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.'”

Of course you’re disaffected—why wouldn’t you be? You’re working a banal, bureaucratic, highly competitive professional-managerial-class job. But know that for 99.99999999 percent of people, work is the thing you do to survive, and you’re no different. Trying to attain some kind of personal satisfaction from alienated wage labor is usually an impossible and thankless task, and your best bet is more to think of work as a supplement to your actual life, even as we’re all living in the cold, black sea of  late capitalism, something so pervasive that we barely even notice it half the time.

Try evaluating your job with a cost-benefit analysis. You say your salary from your somewhat-depressing-but-not-actually-crushing-job provides you with food, shelter, trips, meals, and drugs? Unless it eats up all your time (and time is the greatest luxury), it sounds like you’ve got a decent deal, statistically speaking. You have shitty coworkers and a disorganized workflow, which can be a bummer, but it’s quite possible that’s just par for the course in your field, so consider that before looking around for greener pastures.

Of course, knowing that your job is unrewarding won’t automatically make you feel good; it just reminds you that you’re not alone and your dissatisfaction is normal for everyone else who’s swimming in the same waters. This may be my extreme Protestant work ethic talking, but I believe that in order to actually lead a fulfilling life, you have to stop thinking of it in terms of the wage labor you perform to survive, and instead focus on the three major categories of “work” that happy, self-directed people engage in when not at work, and/or recovering from its traumas and indignities.

  • Self-Directed Projects: OK, this sounds simple, but that doesn’t make it bad advice: get a hobby that provides you with some challenge and pleasure. (You seem like a drama queen—have you considered writing? Or, since you’re dealing with some neuroses, perhaps try something more tangible, like woodworking, which will give you a break from perseverating on your own condition.)
  • Interpersonal Relationships: Spend meaningful time with your friends and loved ones. Make new friends and loved ones. Know how people are doing and listen to them talk about their lives, and reciprocally tell them about your own. (This, too, seems like Life Reconstrution 101, but you’d be shocked at how many people do not understand how to maintain and nurture relationships.)
  • Civic-Minded Duty: This one is a little easier when you have something of a worldview. (Have you heard the good news about Marxism? Best worldview, hands down, for my money.) But basically you want to find a way contribute to humanity, which sounds intimidating, but can be something simple like volunteering. The secondary perk of this kind of work is that it’s always in some way social, which allows you to understand how you can work with others in a non-wage labor setting. This is, in turn, a surprisingly nice feeling that tends to make an actual job much more bearable. It’s important for human-health maintenance to believe one is part of a collective, and it’s even more important to participate in that collective.

I truly believe it’s really just those three things, used in any fruitful combination, that allow you to look outside yourself and maybe even catch a glimpse of what is beyond the water. These pursuits also still leave you ample room to remind  yourself that sometimes you’re just going to be unhappy, and that’s normal and OK.

If you want to better understand the modern malaise, I suggest reading Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, nearly anything by Barbara Ehrenreich, and a decent novel (because we should all be reading more fiction).

Mostly though, I wouldn’t worry too much about finding deeper meaning. Just live your life and know that no one really has any answers. Except for me, that is—I’m a professional.