What Makes Work Worth It?
Because there has to be something.
Work starts out as this occupation of the parents, of late nights under artificial lights instead of saying goodnight. If we’re lucky we get a taste of it, the incomprehensiveness of it all finally within reach when they break their concentration for long enough to let us be a part of it. I can still smell the wet ink of Dad’s pen, which, from the vantage point of my cheek resting on the table looked as overwhelming as it sounded, as he scratched down ideas and sketches. Or the awe when Mum was making casserole; too young, I tried to help — the glass lid shattering on the floor after I’d thought my tiny, slimy hand would be enough to hold it. What superhumans they are, I’m sure I thought.
But soon enough it’s ours. We’re given little tasks which grow into chores, and one day we get to bring home our own work: our own foreign concepts to grasp, our own aching eyes and our own long nights. And, finally, we get our first jobs, when work’s no longer just ours but our peers’ too. We get to laugh and whine together—whining some more when we spill burgundy drops of it on the crumb covered cloth of the patrons we’d pinpointed as having the biggest wallets. “Nah, it couldn’t’ve just been because of that,” one of us would say as we looked down at the few bucks that were to be shared between us.
Through all of it, the good and the bad, it’s confirmed: work is the undertaking of the collective. It bonds us not only to our peers, but to our parents, we find out, when they speak with us about their boss for the first time as if ours is named Steve too. We nod and laugh and get angry along with them in the sharing of mutual hardships. And upon making it into this exclusive club we hear about the other; its members waiting for us to have our own children so that we can bond over the labour of that too. The labours of love, they’ll tell us, until it’s 3 AM and we’re crying from exhaustion while the baby cries because of gas. But we’re reminded of why we do it when we see their blotchy, round face break a sleepy smile at 3:47. A not-too-different reminder to our first paycheque — perfect, no matter how big or small.
It’s the peak of young adulthood, we’re taught.
What isn’t spoken of are those who forever seem stuck dragging their feet at the trailhead.
There’s a quiet kind of labour that a great many people are enlisted into without consent; a silent kind of work forced upon us by all of the things we don’t have control over: genetics, circumstances, environment. It manifests as a gnawing away at our insides, each morsel that’s bitten off seeming to add to a kind of heaviness — on our shoulders, in our stomach, throughout each limb too on those really bad days. For some the onset is early and for others it’s later. Some it happens to so gradually that they don’t notice, not until the pressure of it is too heavy that they’re on the verge of bursting or breaking. The unfortunate ones don’t notice at all.
Mine was early. It was gradual and unnoticed by others until it suddenly wasn’t, because my scrambling attempts to quiet that constant gnawing were externalised and obvious. The adults did their best; I got therapy, a break from school, to try two new schools, and, when I seemed better, I went back to where it had all started. “You look so healthy,” said my P.E. teacher a few days after I’d returned. I’d examined myself in the mirror after that. The dark eyeliner was gone, my hair was bleached and warm, my pallor unseen under the fake tan. I took note. Another thing I noted had to do with my new preoccupation, and it was that the apple I’d eaten for lunch might’ve been too much. Because my insides had twisted a little, a hint of those hungry teeth coming back, notifying me that I was in danger of losing control.
Because I was in High School, where we were taught how to write resumes and cover letters but never how to stay around for long enough to use them — sending us on a trajectory for University and work and families when some of us were just working at getting through the day. I didn’t know just how many until I lost a friend, seemingly because a lot of adults enjoyed their ranking as superhuman, and too many of us were scrambling for the same status to realise that there could be something more important.
It took six more years to realise how little it mattered whether I could empathise with someone else’s Steve, or even succeed enough to become him. I had tried and tried again at any and all acceptable careers I believed I could manage, giving so much of myself to fit in with the status quo that I was brushing away heart palpitations and panic attacks and a general sense of despair until the day that I couldn’t. Ironically, I got a Steve in my life, albeit in name only — my therapist.
“What do you want out of our sessions?” he’d asked me. “What’s your goal?
“To be a functioning part of society,” I’d replied. And I don’t even think he asked me, What makes you think you aren’t? But I would, if I found myself saying that again.
The thing is, we were all assigned the most laborious task of all upon birth: to live. But, unlike parenthood’s chubby smile and work’s paycheque, what serves as our reminder that it’s all worth it? Some will assure us that those are the goals, that success is the goal. Happiness is a goal too but we all know of its fickleness. Death is another great motivator, but it’s one of fear—a voice in our heads urging us to get that pile of work done with a smile, because Steve is always lingering and always in a firing kind of mood. No, there’s only one thing I’m sure of: one thing more important than any motivator, and it’s the nullifier, the thing that makes any ounce of effort we’ve put in worth nothing. It’s invulnerability; it’s that superhumanness which we all saw and wanted to emulate, the idea that there was ever an ideal. It’s the one thing we all strive for that makes us feel any less than what we are, which is human.
I’ll quote myself in a roundabout kind of way through a character I’ve been writing—before I quickly realised that neither he nor anyone would ever say something so on the nose—so he, but me, but also no one, said:
“There’s nothing beautiful about perfection [in art]. Perfect is alien, it’s sterile. What’s beautiful are mistakes: small, large, blemishes, cracks—proof that human creation exists, and not just the creations of gods; for even their own creations are perfect through their imperfections and not in spite of them. Remind people that your art was made by someone and that it’s alive. It might be the only way we remember it ourselves.”
But vulnerability doesn’t have to be imbued in art, or words, or anything more than how we live out our days. It’ll be in the way you’ll laugh through the exhaustion and tears when your kid scribbles over your walls two-minutes before the in-laws arrive, and in the way they don’t care. Or years later when you’ll speak of your own struggles when your moody teen comes home from school, tired and sick with the type of malaise you can’t fix with chicken soup, and the way they’ll stick around for long enough to learn the recipe. If you don’t plan on being a parent, you’ll find it in the way no one judges you for it, and the vulnerability and acceptance you bring to the other people in your life instead. You’ll find it in yourself the next time you make a mistake or you’re out of a job, when you remember to not feel in any way worthless, because being vulnerable and imperfect is a kind of job that never ends, but it’s one that has the power to make everything else worth it.