You gotta love popular culture. Last week an airline flight attendant decides he has had enough and makes a grand exit from the airplane via the emergency chute. Within hours, “Take This Job and Shove It” was replaced by “Taking the Slide” as everyman’s answer to job burnout.
I took the slide once. My girlfriend of five years had just left for a new job in a different city. The people I worked for were proactively stupid. I was deeply depressed, exhausted, and forlorn. As manager, I knew I could do absolutely nothing to help them succeed–they were hell-bent on continuing to do the things that had not worked for so many years. I walked in that morning, talked the bookkeeper into giving me my paycheck two days early, and walked out.
I am not particularly proud of this episode. A commitment is a commitment, and I could have at least given notice. What strikes me in retrospect is just how bad it was. I had no other job to go to. I had no (read “zero”) money. The only friend I had in town was dishonest, though I had not really admitted that to myself yet. Yet for all the downside, I left–cold.
In the years following, I had any number of jobs I despised. One time after a mutual bitch-fest with a friend about the misery of employment, he asked me how come I always seemed to wind up with jobs I hated. He may have been asking that question as much for himself as me, but it got right to the heart of the matter.
Why do so many of us hate our jobs?
Before I became a professor I thought that a job was that disgusting thing you did to yourself so that you could do what you really wanted to do in your off-time. Taking the slide that one time was a pathetic substitute for genuine courage. It was a visceral reaction to the self-loathing I had generated in my years as a greasy and worn cog in the Great Machine of Life. It was killing me.
What happens to a human being who answers the call of the Machine rather than the call of Life? Joseph Campbell tells us that all we need to do is observe the character of Darth Vader. More machine than man, Vader has forsaken his true nature in order to serve the Empire. His redemption occurs only as he chucks the Emperor to his death and realizes again what he is really made of–his version of taking the slide.
For many of us, it takes a near-death experience to become whole and true. Mine was a period of nearly three days where daylight and darkness became almost indistinguishable. Barely able to move physically and incapable of rational thought, I lay on my apartment couch. When I finally regained enough energy to feel anything at all, I was terrified. It took that much to shake me out of complacency.
And that’s really the problem, isn’t it? Like Darth Vader, we lose an arm here and a leg there, replacing them with sophisticated mechanisms that look and function like the real thing. But deep in our souls, we know the difference. We can tell that we have sacrificed part of ourselves on the altar of making a living. We loathe Monday and worship Friday, telling ourselves how happy we are to be alive two days of the week.
What is it that you really want out of life? Are you doing the work you were born to do or showing up every weekday, well, just because. There are thousands of ways to make a living doing what you love. You may choose not to quit your job now. You may never quit your job. But you sure as hell can start to fill that gap between your true self and your machine self. Find your calling and live.