After a couple of months out of work, it feels really good to be gainfully employed again. To respect the privacy of this secret burrow location, I won’t say exactly where I’m working. But I can say that what I’m doing now adheres to the practice of “Right Livelihood,” which means I’m not making my living by causing or contributing to harm. As I grow older, it’s an increasingly important precept — likely because it’s becoming much more difficult to observe in too many areas of the country. During my time off, I got to think a lot about what I would be willing to do for a paycheck and what I would avoid for as long as possible. But a lot of us don’t really have that luxury. In order to pay the bills, so many of us are forced to do unfulfilling work that doesn’t do anything to make the world a better place. Some of us even have to take jobs that make things worse. That’s because so many of us lack the power to choose the work we find most fulfilling, that calls to our purpose in life or at least lets us help our fellow beings.
There are so many barriers to being able to land a decent, fulfilling job. Just pulling from my background, my family wasn’t in any financial position to send me to a private school and I was exceedingly lucky to be placed in whatever ‘gifted and talented’ programs were available. This gave me opportunities most children my age couldn’t get — like learning Latin, gaining access to extracurricular programs that furthered my studies, even meeting teachers who were lively and dedicated enough to make sure my lessons stuck. In high school I floundered because I had never learned how to study properly or work past frustration. My home life was a shambles, and there was no way to deal with that. I was woefully unprepared for college, and didn’t have the institutional, community, or familial resources that most do to get help. I never got a degree, never developed a network in the workforce, never learned skills that could be applied to different positions. Now I’m a 40 year old black man without college education or any certifications. If it weren’t for the kindness and generosity of my professional network, I would have been in serious trouble. My age, my race, my education, my mental health — all of them are working against me in the job market. I am so, so grateful to have such good friends and colleagues, and I’m mindful that so many people like me don’t have the resources I do.
Having a job that doesn’t fulfill you, or that you believe is harming your community — it wears on you in a way that few other things do. It can poison your self-image and rot you from the inside. Being forced to deal with immoral people without the ability to assert your values is a quiet devastation of the soul. It changes the way you see people, and the way you see the world. In order to survive the experience, most of us either have to adopt the mindset of the colleagues trapped in such a system — the attitude that life is a competition, and we all have to do whatever it takes to make it. This may include backstabbing our coworkers, lying to customers, damaging relationships in order to get ahead, compromising our integrity. We might quell the disturbed voice within us by adopting a new mantra: This is just the cost of doing business.
We are incredibly adaptable creatures, capable of surviving and thriving in any environment. But sometimes, our efforts shouldn’t go towards thriving in a harmful environment — it should go towards removing ourselves from it, or, barring that, changing it. Most of us don’t have the luxury of leaving jobs we don’t like, so transforming it is often our only choice. That is often lonely, exhausting, thankless work. Without some sort of validation or recognition, we can fall to despair. Why even try to change things when we know it’s not going to work? We’re not going to be able to make a company think more about ethical behavior and less about money. Who are we doing this for?
Ourselves. We may not be able to transform the world around us, even with hard work and persistent effort, but we can make sure that the world doesn’t transform us. At the very least, we can take stock of our values and do our best to make sure we’re handling our jobs in a way that aligns with them. That is difficult, I won’t lie. It might require some creativity. But making the effort to transform our relationship with our work is an overlooked act of self-preservation. If we can’t do what we love, we can find a way to do what we have to with love.
In the United States, we’ve largely shifted from an industrial economy to a service economy. A lot of us work for companies that put us in contact with people all day, every day. We encounter others who present themselves angrily, with unyielding expectations and an air of entitlement to treat us as terribly as necessary to make sure those expectations are fulfilled. Sometimes, both of us are trapped in a system neither of us want to be in, forced to protect a company’s profit over true service to our fellow beings. Many customers see us as nothing more than an adversary, an obstacle in the path of the just treatment they deserve.
And despite the names of the systems that trap us, like ‘customer service/success/care’, the systems themselves force us into that adversarial relationship. Often, the customer isn’t given the right information at the right time to understand a company decision. Sometimes, the decision itself is terrible and we’re tasked with justifying it. Sometimes, someone feels cheated and we have to protect the company that pinched their purse. When someone comes to us, the expectation is to deny what’s being asked for and try to make the customer feel good about the experience regardless.
When a customer rails at us, they are bringing that story with them already in progress. It can be incredibly easy to accept the role we’ve been given and become enemies, especially if we feel attacked unfairly or the demands of our job has already drained our self-image. If we feel isolated in our lives, unsupported by our colleagues, and bound to anti-social company practices, our frustration only has one way to go — towards the person attacking us. It can even feel like a karmic righting, denying someone who dares to treat us so poorly.
That’s a spiral I’ve been down, and desperately want to stop. The anger I feel about our current social conundrum or the helpless loneliness I feel doesn’t go away with perpetuating unkindness. Those feelings become fossilized with those actions, and we begin to not only accept the role of enmity we’ve been given but the whole story — our customers are our enemies, and the lot of them are stupid, ignorant, entitled. It’s a horrible story that brings out the worst in me and denies me the chance to change the course of our interaction from combative to collaborative.
But, in order for me to do that, I have to change the way I think about…well, everything. I am not an agent of a company. I am a person with the ability to help another person who has come to me for help. I don’t have a list of policies that determine what I can’t do to help our customers; I have a small suite of tools for assisting people who need in the best way I can manage. I am not here to be screamed at by a customer; I am the only one who can hear this person’s frustration with the system we’re both stuck in, and I can offer a way out.
For me, Right Livelihood isn’t just about making sure the company you’re working for does no harm. It’s also about making sure your work doesn’t poison you into spreading harm. Some of us have a lot of work to do if we expect to retain our compassion and equanimity in the face of a difficult situation; it’s best to recognize where we are with that and do our best to proceed accordingly. Sometimes, the way out of the wrong situation is simply changing the way we respond to it. Even if we can’t be in a place that does no harm, we can decide to help as much as we can, in any way we can.
This Labor Day, I pray that all of us finds a way to find contentment with our work, and to keep striving to transform ourselves and our communities to the best possible versions of themselves. Each of us has the power to connect with our fellow beings, to change the hostile narrative we’re trapped in, to encourage an attitude of love and helpfulness. I’ll keep working on that here, now that I’ve been given another chance to.