Stopping Work

I came home furious this morning. Truculent shoppers and supermarket staff with their masks below the nose, or no masks at all, may have been the occasion for my anger, but there was something deeper happening. I don't like crowds, and never have. They make me anxious. They exhaust me. Any group larger than a table of friends is hard work, and even a night with friends is tiring.

I've grumbled to myself of the last few years that I seem to be getting more introverted as I get older. But I wonder if that's true. It's now been two years since I left work, and I think retirement is letting me, finally, be me. It's not that I'm more introverted, or more anxious; it's that I no longer have to "play the game" to hold down a job. This might account for why I discovered I was profoundly exhausted when I took a few weeks off, two years ago. So exhausted that I never went back.

Somewhere in my forties, I lost any desire to work at a job. Fascinating as it was, my IT work seemed mostly aimed at making rich people richer, and there was constant pressure from clients to cut corners, especially in the area of security—and that was in a good job!  In the church, panicked by its ageing demographic, "Leadership" had become a magic cure-all for a lack of bums on seats. It was clear some colleagues thought I should accept I was a dinosaur, and quietly disappear to let the real ministers fix things. For my part, I thought we were often being shown the emperor's new clothes. I was no longer at home in the church which had nurtured me and given me life.

I told myself I had to keep going for another twenty years, so as to get the kids through school, get something of the home loan paid off, and so we could eat. How many of us just buckle down and do it, sometimes hating the work we do?

I was one of the very fortunate in this position. My extraordinary partner had an income. I managed to start a tiny IT business—a day or two a week, which let me work individually with clients. I helped congregations and clergy colleagues. Andrew Dutney suggested I be asked to minister to a small congregation who, it  turned out were happy with a permission giving, part time preacher, who mostly let them run their own show. That continued with another even smaller congregation, and the best years of my working life. This was mostly because I was not dealing with large groups of people, and was free not to worry about "bums on seats" for, at heart, despite occasional talk to the contrary, I think both congregations had long ago decided to hold on as long as they could, and then close. Twice in that time, I took on a part-time interim position with a larger congregation which had realistic possibilities for a continuing future. It was exciting and rewarding. And both times, I got sick.

On the occasion of his 50th birthday, someone asked the writer Gordon Atkinson if he would write a letter to the Gordon of fifteen years before. He said, "I have nothing to say that my 35 year old self would understand." This seems very wise. We may feel that the life of our culture is profoundly unhealthy, and we may make deliberate changes to our way of living, but we can't control our futures. Which may be just as well, for at 35, and 45, we don't understand what is going on, and what drives us.  I'm 67 in a fortnight, and I still barely understand myself, and suspect I'm plain wrong about many things.

But I can live now. Once, I'd have come back from the supermarket this morning, deflected my distress by being angry about something mostly unrelated, and then buried it in more work. This morning, I put the shopping away, took the almost unprecedented step of describing to Wendy how upset I was, and then went and thought about it—and other things, while lying under the bedroom fan. Not much else will get done today.

I'm reminded of an older bloke who was next to us in a caravan park, years ago. He had a top of the line Nissan Patrol, and an even larger caravan. I suspect that the whole rig was more expensive than our house. Each morning, as we were going off somewhere, he would bring out a bucket and wash the vehicle, dry it off with soft cloths, and then polish the chrome and the glass. He did this every morning for a week. The vehicle never moved.

I used to remember him methodically washing it all down, and feel sorry for him. Was that all there was to his life? I wonder, now, if perhaps he was onto something, engaging in a sort of contemplative practice, while his mind wandered elsewhere… and watched. I seem to be spending a lot of time doing this, and it's good. I am finally beginning to relax. Maybe I'll even wash my bike this afternoon. 

(Dec 28 2021)


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