Saturday, June 06, 2015

Live life happy, IF you can

Don't wish your life away...unless you have to. I saw this posted on Facebook recently:

I responded with support for this sentiment, saying that even people who constantly long for 5:00 p.m. or Friday are self-defeatingly wishing their lives away when they should appreciate each moment. But I re-considered my response later because I realized my thinking was quite privileged. I hadn't considered that for many people, anticipating the next stage of their life is what keeps them going. The bright part of their lives is in the future (they hope). I've worked retail and restaurant jobs alongside people who had little choice but to work in those places. Those kinds of on-your-feet-all-day jobs are labor-intensive, painful and draining. You can find things to enjoy about them, but there are very good reasons to look forward to your shift being over. It's completely understandable for some people to live for the end of the day or week.

The quotation above, which is anonymous, directs us to live for today which is good advice, but it assumes that there are things that are capable of being enjoyed right now. When you have no choice but to work an unpleasant job that hurts your feet and pays too little, finding the parts you can enjoy can be hard. Maybe in that situation it's okay to live for the end of the shift and wish your days away because your real life takes place away from the cash register or kitchen or vacuum cleaner.

I remember once taking a job at a chain grocery store. I had been looking for a different kind of job, but felt like I was running out of options. I lasted three days. My co-workers were great and I liked the customers. The work itself was fine, but I came up against two big problems: the scheduling and the pain in my feet. Retail scheduling is brutal: there's no regular pattern to your hours whatsoever. I've worked in restaurants that gave me a steady weekly schedule that didn't change unless I requested it, so I have no idea why retail is so different. Can anyone tell me why retail scheduling has to be so different from restaurant scheduling? As exploitative as the restaurant industry is, at least they get that part right: people need regular hours so we can plan our lives. The manager of the store assured me that I'd always know my schedule two weeks ahead of time, but that wasn't good enough. I had other obligations to accommodate.

And the pain. Granted, I probably took this job at too late a point in my life and my feet weren't up for it, or maybe I have sensitive feet with bad arches. I don't know. But the pain in my feet started in hour 4 of my first day on the job and only got worse from there. I hobbled to the train after that shift, grateful to sit. My feet were so sore that I dreaded arriving at my stop and having to walk again from the station to my apartment: a six-minute walk. On the second day, the pain started in hour 2, plus some lower back pain as well. This wasn't going to work for me.

I resigned from that job feeling more grateful than ever for my education. At some points in my life, my bachelors and masters degrees have almost felt like stones around my neck. They've felt like proof that I'm not a true Mexican, but am really a coconut. They've also made me feel pressured to do amazing things with that education when instead, I've led an ordinary life, often financially scraping from one month to the next. I've gone from entry-level position to entry-level position, never really using that education for anything it was supposed to be used for, and this has made me feel guilty, unworthy, ashamed. For years I stuck my Cornell masters degree in a closet, in its original envelope (now it's in a frame). I don't even know where my diploma from U.C. Berkeley is.

But that grocery store job shifted my view. The day I quit, I felt grateful to my core that I have a choice about what kind of job to take. My education means I don't have to work on my feet for 8 hours at a time (unless I choose to). I felt damned lucky that I went to college, and even graduate school, when so many people never get that chance. I recognized that it was my father's mother who really deserves my gratitude because she understood that education was the key to a decent life.

This is amazing to me now: my Mexican American grandmother, who lived in Texas, who became a mother in the 1930s, who at one point worked in a mattress factory, was determined to see all of her children get an education. My father and his siblings all graduated from high school, a remarkable accomplishment in Texas in the 1950s. Not a lot of Mexican Americans were doing that, but my parents even graduated from college, and my father earned a masters degree. They valued education so much that I got all the higher learning I could stomach. And now here I stand (or sit): able to choose from a much wider array of careers than I'd be able to otherwise. I was lucky. Damned lucky.

But the American work force is full of people who weren't lucky. We've all experienced the unfriendly worker who acts like they hate their job. Maybe we needed their help at the Department of Motor Vehicles or the library or Walmart. Maybe we got less-than-perfect service from the person who did our nails or served our drinks. Before we judge them for not enjoying the moment, for not living the life they want, for not appreciating what they have, we might imagine the pain they're in. That pain is probably emotional, might be physical and is certainly financial. Yes, it's the responsibility of each of us to find pleasure in our lives, but not everyone has much choice about their circumstances. They're trying to "live life happy," but to use such a sentiment as a motto is really the prerogative of the privileged.

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