“What a piece of work is a man!”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
An effective tool to counteract the onset of tedium induced by the interminable routine of work is to think of oneself as being an actor on stage. Ultimately it is all entertainment that is short-lived; this relieves one of the burden of taking oneself too seriously. Like life, the nature of work is full of contradictions. It is while doing what we loathe that we understand what we enjoy and even as we pursue what we love we encounter moments of dreariness where we hate the activity. Wittgenstein suggests that when we think we are exploring ideas we are really only exploring the language that represents the ideas. Since language, as the construction material of understanding, hovers between the negative and positive poles of binary opposites, we should not be surprised that life mirrors this perpetual tension.
Perhaps we have become addicted to pleasure and chase the ‘happy’ fix as a by-product of particular action or thought. Pleasure is not happiness and expecting life or work to offer a consistent flow of happiness is a fantasy, like trying to attain the never-ending orgasm. We need to experience the tension between loving and hating to settle into contentment where acceptance of both generates balance. The workplace offers us this tension in abundance and becomes the testing ground of our personal philosophies and belief systems. As emotional beings it is no wonder that we seek pleasure over pain. However, we are also rational beings and this is the space where we process the needs of our work and deliver the goods.
The industrial revolution introduced the era of technology, of systems and production that threatens to transform humankind into units of labour and consumption. It mechanized war and initiated medical breakthroughs which have contributed to increased longevity. Despite increased health and leisure time we appear to be more depressed than ever before. We hate work and in a manner befitting the twenty first century, are consuming our way to happiness with fanatical frenzy. Edwin Brock’s poem “Five ways to kill a man” remains an apt reflection of the human condition. In the poem he concludes that the simplest way to kill a man is “to see that he is living somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, and leave him there.” The dehumanizing effect of the modern world is a central feature of our art and literature. It is why we still need to come to terms with the notion of work and its impact in our theatre of being.
The prospect of a lifetime of a daily routine to and from work terrified me as a young man and it induced a crisis of being in my early 20’s. The anticipation of being bound to a lifetime of tedium seemed like suicide by slow ordeal. Overcome with hopelessness and growing despair I began searching for meaning within the perpetual slog of repetitive daily routine. I discovered Camus, Leonard Cohen and resilience. My work, engaging young minds in a classroom was fulfilling, but beyond the classroom the rigid regulation bound world of school systems was an internal corrosive. I felt little more than a bureaucratic cog in an immense sausage machine tasked with churning out productive, law abiding citizens who would in turn feed the system ad nauseam.
An event in my first year of teaching illustrates my growing sense of isolation in the school system. Walking along a corridor I came across a year 12 student standing and facing the red brick wall outside a classroom. His nose nearly touched the wall. I suspected he was the subject of Calvinist rehabilitation (corporal punishment was regarded an essential aspect of education then). I paused and shuffled up next to him to stare at the wall,
“OK, I’m looking but I don’t get it?” I said.
“I left my homework at home.” He replied.
“And you hope to find it here?”
He chuckled, “ma’am (female teachers were addressed as ma’am) told me to stand here like this.”
“I suppose it’s better than being inside” I said. We both laughed, too loud. The classroom door opened and the diminutive but steely tyrant stared me down, sneered, sniffed dismissively and shut the door. In that instant I was no longer a colleague but a bumbling school boy. Embarrassed and confused by the situation and my own response, or lack thereof, I slunk away like a child.
It was a seminal moment that began to shape my attitude to work. I felt like a failed court jester and knew I could never expect the system to nurture or support me beyond the meagre salary it provided. Fulfilment at work would depend less on the work being done and more on my frame of mind while doing it. “I work for myself” became my mantra rules became a rough guide secondary to creativity and fun. I wanted to generate enthusiasm and curiosity and have students look forward to getting to class, as much for myself as for them. I admitted ignorance to my students, I could be honest and debates were commonplace; students were learning and I was having fun at work. Later that year we first year teachers were being lectured by a teaching veteran, “work at discipline, work hard and work will be easy…”his voice droned on but all I could hear was Hamlet sigh “words, words, words …”.