Most of us measure our lives by the progression of a career.
We start out with dreams; spaceman, nurse, vet, train driver, deep sea diver. These dreams are fed or squashed by teachers, parents, careers officers. They tell us it is all so serious, so crucial; we have to find the right path.
So we stumble forwards through school exams, college courses, university. The pressure is intense. Each threshold contains the possibility of complete failure.
But most of us make it through to some kind of job. The bottom rung. The starting block in the race of life.
About a quarter of a century ago I started my first job as a social worker. I was 23, naive and desperate to do something that mattered- to mask my own brokenness behind (often futile) attempts to mend others. I worked hard in a small team under intense pressure from inner city problems that most people would never believe existed. Most of my colleagues buckled under the strain- none of them are still working in social work.
As I too began to come apart at the seams, I also progressed my career. I became a specialist, then a therapist. Later I became a team leader, then an area manager. I was climbing.
Except that when you climb higher into the machine, what you find is not a more finely honed sense of what social work is all about. The idealism that took us into the profession is gone. The value base that we espouse (person centredness, an identification with the poor and those in need) has largely been forgotten. These things are not measurable, have no performance targets, so have no worth in this new world.
You also find that power attracts a certain kind of personality. Some people seem born to trample on the fingers of others and call it good management. The games that we play to win pointless hollow victories. The damage we do to each other (and to ourselves.) Often, quiet competence is punished, whilst those who can play the power game advance. It came to a point where I felt myself neither competent nor able to raise myself to scratch for power, so I got out.
But I still need to make a living, so eventually I find myself doing agency work, back at the bottom of the rung. From one perspective, the last 25 years never existed. I have gone no where, done nothing.
Meanwhile I am looking at applying for permanent jobs with salaries that are less than I have earned for more than a decade. And it is all rather sobering.
However, I am still having to learn over and over that life is NOT about rising up, succeeding, earning ever more money. This kind of life is one that is killing the planet and making us all unhappy.
What I am learning again are the simple pleasures of doing something because it is good. Listening to people’s stories with ears wide open. Meeting people on the edge and encouraging them to shuffle back a bit.
Life is not lived in straight lines. Thank God.