Upon leafing through the Guardian Weekend Work supplement last weekend while looking for job ads, I came across a poem that made me swallow hard. It's called Don't Ask by the poet, writer and broadcaster Matt Harvey, who wrote it thinking about the feelings of those who have recently been made redundant. I have copied the poem below.
His words so accurately reflect my sentiments as an unemployed newbie journalist struggling to find work, it made me blush with recognition.
I have no children and I am not anyone’s carer. Without a job to go to, I have infinite time in my hands to do what I wish with it. And yet, I sometimes so hate being idle I weep with despair. The more time I have, the less I seem to accomplish.
I am certainly more productive when I am under pressure of deadlines and targets, only 5 hours’ sleep during the week, when I have an employer to report to, who will evaluate my performance quarterly and reward me with a paycheque come end of the month. I can meet people confidently and say, "Hi, I am Jo Bloggs, manager of xyz. I'm in charge of such-and-such." The phrase “I’m a freelance journalist.” can sometimes sound like a polite euphemism for “I’m looking for a day job.” Which is probably true in my case.
It is insane how much of our sense of identity is linked in to what we do work-wise, who or what we are "known as" in society, in business, in the industry.... Workaholics as myself like to have targets to live by, performance measures to be used as yardsticks of our growth, recognition in the form of praise and bonuses. It is like an anaesthetic that keeps us from having to face our own demons. What we do, in actuality, is hide behind our “image” as defined by the job instead of cultivating the Self, which exists regardless of being in employment or not.
And when the fleeting image is taken away from us, we are left with…what exactly?
Darn, it is just a job we are out of. Not a roof over our heads, not food, not drinking water, or sewage, or heating, or doctors to look after us when we are ill.
On Sunday (10th May) evening I watched The Secret Millionaire on TV and cried. I only watched it because my husband comes from Dundee in Scotland, where this episode was done, and he insisted I see it. In each episode a millionaire entrepreneur is sent to a very deprived area for a week disguised as a non-millionaire and is given minimal money to survive on so that they can get a taste of how “the other half” lives. During the week the millionaire visits a few local charitable organisations to find out about their work and on the final day makes large donations while revealing his/her real identity.
The crying did me a whole load of good. I didn't cry for the reasons I had been needing to (i.e. self-pity) but because I was reminded there are people out there working selflessly to help others less fortunate than themselves, earning a pittance while working 60-70hs/week, and families that depend entirely on donations to be able to eat one basic meal a day.
I felt ashamed of not being able to appreciate what I have when so many have so little.
After a nice meal at home, my husband often leans back with hands crossed behind his head and says, "We have a good life, don't we?" It makes me laugh because I never considered we had a particularly "good life” by any standard. But then I always had food on the table and clean clothes to wear as a child, whereas for him, coming from a poor single-parent working class background, these things were never taken for granted.
I now think he is right. Unemployed or not, I do have a good life. The only poverty I need to eradicate is in my heart.
Although the temptation is great to despair every time I look at the balance in my bank account, there is now also a zen-like calmness within me, a “knowing” that things will fall into place when the right time comes. We tend to think that that time is ‘now’, now being the moment we feel the despair, so we get frustrated that things are not happening sooner.
Ironically, the universe has a time flow of its own. We are so eager for tomorrow to come, tomorrow being when the despair (theoretically) ends – the day that job offer falls onto our laps – that we forget to water, grow and love that one seed that needs looking after right this very moment: our “selves”.
Don’t Ask by Matt Harvey
It’s not just what I did, it’s who I was.
Unemployed? Too small a word. I am Bereft.
I’ve gone from worker bee – the bee that does –
to true victim of identity theft.
Restored to stem cell status, a blank slate lent
both poignancy by what has been erased,
and urgency by my latest bank statement.
A wage-slave freed, disoriented, displaced –
and freed unasked, by over-generous masters.
A battery hen compelled to go free range.
They’ve been and gone and stitched me up, the bastards –
turned me into a strangely self-estranged
creased denizen of the involuntary sector –
thumb-twiddler, bird-feeder, library-lurker,
Lord of the Lounge, the remote my orb and sceptre,
Sudoku black belt, ‘yes-but-that’s-not-work’er
who’ll grab at any hand that might reward me,
lend me their brand and say, “You’re part of us”,
who craves a corporate Borg who will absorb me.
So, no – don’t ask – I am not Spartacus...
57 minutes ago