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[cancer|culture] Employment and me and the American obsession with work

Interesting article here about American’s relationship to work, specifically in light of some of the recent Republican bitching about Obamacare and jobs. As if introducing broader economic choices and more personal freedom by eliminating healthcare-driven job lock and marriage lock were somehow a bad thing.

The article says:

You heard echoes of America’s Puritan roots in Republicans’ latest argument against Obamacare: Work is a irreducible part of who we are and anything that shifts incentives away from work is a step toward indolence and sloth. We might be a more secular nation in the 21st century, but we still generally establish our self-identity through our occupation, experts say. The Protestant work ethic prevails.

Speaking as someone who is no longer working, but living off SSDI and private disability insurance, um, yeah. This issue bothers me a lot. My basic cultural wiring is just as embedded in the poisonous cesspool of Calvinism as the rest of America. I was raised with a Southern-tinged Protestant tilt. I know in my bones that worldly success means God’s favor, that illness and poverty mean that one has failed morally. This is how our culture behaves, to our everlasting shame.

So now, being on disability as I am, I’m no longer working in the usual sense of the term. Being a cancer patient is certainly a full time job, but it doesn’t embrace what conservatives call “the dignity of work”. (Which, by the way, is something I think they do get right — there is a dignity in purposeful work. Where I diverge from my conservative friends is in the definitions and implications inherent in that phrase. The core idea I don’t have a problem with.) I can’t work, even if I wanted to. Yesterday’s lunchtime trip into DC underscored how shallow my physical and mental reserves really are. That’s why I’m on disability.

We as a society harshly judge people who don’t work (excepting of course the idle rich). Who are perceived to lack ambition or ability. Where does that leave me? I worked hard all my life, did pretty well financially and professionally, and now drowning in the seas of cancer at the twilight of my days, am sidelined.

Sometimes that bothers me intensely. I miss both the job I had — I enjoyed my profession and my workplace and my coworkers — and I miss being that kind of busy. I miss writing for part of my living. I miss being focused and economically productive. I am not poor, even now, but I am certainly ill. About as ill as one can be without actually being dead.

It’s not a sense of failure. More like something at the intersection of shame, regret and frustration. I wish I could retool my mental landscape and see this time of being on disability benefits as my version of honorable retirement, or as my compensation for the job of being a cancer patient and standing witness to the disease for myself and others. Maybe I’ll succeed in that yet. But so far there’s too much of that American Calvinism in me to just let go.

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