Thursday, April 24, 2008

It's Not You, It's Me

Do you believe in the intrinsic differences of human beings? Or do you think we're all pretty much alike, though maybe I like spinach and indie rock and you hate spinach and indie rock but love peas and classic country?

You can probably guess where I fall in this debate. I think that even though we're the same species, we have real, intrinsic differences of psychology and personality. We are not all suited to the same environments, the same expectations, the same cultures, the same societies. And when we don't quite fit, we suffer greatly in trying to do so.

For many years, this was my pattern: I'd get a job, enjoy it for a while, then something would happen and I'd slowly become miserable, and have to make a change. So I'd get another job, and then it would happen again. I'd grow bored or antsy, and my bosses would always turn on me because I was no longer content to keep doing what I was doing. For years, I thought it was my bosses' fault, and while I truly had some terrible ones, what I finally realized was this: Rabbits can breed in captivity, but dolphins can't (or rarely can).

That doesn't mean what you think it means, so get your mind out of the gutter. What I'm saying is that some animals' life force is so severely stressed and hampered by captivity that they stop functioning, even to their own detriment. I mean, if they get so bad off that their instinct for survival is shunted, that must mean that they--dolphins, pandas, certain birds, etc.--are wired very differently from rabbits and pigs and cows and other easily domesticated animals.

Languishing in the series of cubicles (cages) I inhabited, I felt suffocated, frustrated, hopeless.

I was a dolphin trying to breed (symbolically speaking, trying to create and propagate ideas) in captivity, and failing miserably. Free Tiffany! But no movie crew would be interested, since there are millions of us like this. Who cares, they might ask--why can't you just suck it up and be like the rest of society?

And I tried. I really did. I didn't want to be different, and I wanted things to be easy, which is probably why I was in denial so long about it being the job or the boss, and not me.

But it was me. It was my fault, my problem, my responsibility. And no one could fix it but me. No one was going to break me out of my confines, no activists were lobbying for my release. I had to free myself, and to do so meant that I had to honor who I really was.

I know I am Homo sapiens, but I may--like so many of you--be a subspecies: Homo sapiens independensis. We chafe under captivity, we wither under watchful eyes, we choke ourselves on chains trying to break free.

So here we are: admitting we need something different. So if that doesn't work--if the cubicle existence slowly kills us--what conditions allow us to thrive?

Here's my list, but feel free to add to it:

  • Freedom to create
  • Autonomy over our work
  • Freedom from surveillance
  • An environment of trust and honor
  • An ethical environment
  • Flexibility to design our schedules and our projects
  • Respect for our fundamental humanity
  • Respect for our differences
  • An environment of fairness and justice
  • Time to explore, investigate and satisfy our curiosity
  • Ability to express emotion and feeling without fear of repercussion
  • An environment that values and appreciates our contributions

As you may notice, this doesn't just apply to work. It applies to relationships, to governments, to friendships. How so many people manage to survive under conditions so unlike these is beyond me.

So honor who you are. If you don't fit in the environment you're in, don't blame your boss, even if she really is an A-Number One Bitch. Sure, she may be a tyrant, but she could be all sweetness and light, and unless the conditions above are satisfied, you won't do well. If you are the dolphin and not the rabbit, find your way out of the cage and out into the open ocean. Sure, there are predators out there, but what kind of a life is the caged one?

I'll leave you with this excerpt--a passage that changed my life--from a conversation Joseph Campbell had with Michael Toms in the book "An Open Life":

"There are two ways of living a mythologically grounded life. One way is just to live what I call 'the way of the village compound,' where you remain within the sphere of your people...There are, however, people who feel this isn't the whole story...It's inevitable that a person with any sense of openness to new experience will say to himself, 'Now, this won't do, the way we're living.'

On the other hand, there's plenty of reason for those who don't have this feeling to remain within the field because our societies today are so rich in the gifts they can render. But if a person has had the sense of the Call--the feeling that there's an adventure for him--and if he doesn't follow that, but remains in the society because it's safe and secure, then life dries up. And then he comes to that condition in late middle age: he's gotten to the top of the ladder, and found that it's against the wrong wall.

If you have the guts to follow the risk, however, life opens, opens, opens up all along the line. I'm not superstitious, but I do believe in spiritual magic, you might say. I feel that if one follows what I call one's "bliss"--the thing that really gets you deep in the gut and that you feel is your life--doors will open up. They do! They have in my life and they have in many lives that I know of."

So it's not them, it's you. But contrary to what they'll try to convince you of, that's not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very, very good thing.

Your fellow dolphin,

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