Who am I?
What am I here for?
Where am I going?
Is this it?
These are just some of the existential questions that escape from their dungeon in the darkest recesses of my mind from time to time. Along with the crazy comparisons – she has a chair, he’s running a company, they’re making a difference – go the panicky thoughts that accompany the sense of time running out.
Reflecting on a thirty year career, remembering what I wanted to achieve when young, reminding myself of the opportunities I have had, and the places I have been, the people I have met, inevitably brings a critical voice wondering why I am where I am now and not somewhere else.
Two recent interactions on twitter indicate that I am not alone. When one leaves a job, a career path, one feels a sense of grief and loss and failure. Even when we are at the stage in life I am, with more behind us than in front, we can still wonder what we would rather have done, whether we took the best path for us.
How does anyone, at the age of 18, make a decision about the best part of their waking hours, for the rest of their life? No wonder today’s younger generation are taking time before going off to university, or even recognising that a degree in almost anything will not bring employment, let alone a career that will enrich them for the rest of their lives. And what is a career for, we might ask. Societal service? Personal fulfilment? Preserving the lives of the rich so that they don’t need to work? In today’s economy we are lucky if we enjoy our work – so many people are struggling to make ends meet in jobs they hate.
Leaving a job that makes you ill, that batters your very being until you don’t know what it is or who you are, is a courageous move, not a cowardly retreat. That so many healthcare professionals are leaving is empowering, proof that people do not need to and should not be expected to endure the levels of individual and organisational abuse they are subjected to. To anyone who has left healthcare, I say, good for you. You do so with my blessing (and if you find you want to, you can always go back!)
I told my boss that once. I was leaving a job I had spent two years securing – working on a temporary basis, proving that I was worth keeping on – which happened, but after three more years I was moving on, less from career development motives than personal necessity. My world had crashed down round my ears and moving on to pastures new in another country was hopefully a new start.
I met my boss in the corridor. I had huge respect for him.
He expressed his sorrow at my leaving, and asked what I would do if it were the wrong move.
“I won’t know it’s the wrong move if I don’t try it,” I replied, with all the confidence of the young. “And I suppose I can always come back.”
But now I know we rarely go back. We keep on moving. And maybe that’s why choices are so difficult to make. A bad one necessitates another move forward. And maybe another. For doctors in training the choices are not theirs, and the movement is a necessity. Good placements are left in tears; bad ones with relief but with fear about the next. Similarly other health care professionals, including nurses, have to make a move to progress. And suddenly 40 hour weeks become 50 or 60 hour weeks as travel is factored into the equation. We might have a choice about the job but we don’t have much option when it comes to a broken, third world transport system.
For me, movement was part of life’s rich tapestry. A move of countries after my initial career, then incremental moves based on whim, relationship status and motherhood led me to developing the kind of portfolio career I had always wanted to avoid.
And now? I know that staying in my first career choice would have yielded a remuneration package thrice what I currently have, and a title to accompany it. Pursuing academia would have done similarly. Independence and creativity have cost me financially but also brought renown and demand that sadly does not translate into money, but brings travel and adventure.
So how do we gain the perspective we need to evaluate where we are, who we are and what we have achieved in life? How do we stop the hamster wheel, get off and look at it from a more distant position?
I suggest we need to go away. Preferably alone. For a few days with no work, only ourselves for company and our interests as entertainment. I went to Paris. My twentieth visit in 36 years. It’s my touchstone. My utopia. The place I first tentatively found myself, separate to my family. Three days alone, wandering, eating, drinking and enjoying the art, and benefiting from my ability to chat in reasonable french, I was in heaven. Three days to feel like a teenager again, with a mid life wisdom and sense of perspective that doesn’t often appear when I am at home.
So let’s revisit the dungeon questions.
Who am I?
I am me. A woman who loves art and sculpture and Paris and who works in education, and has had a rich and textured working life that has afforded travel and discovery such as I would never have experienced if I had not said yes to some of the random opportunities I have been offered. I have learned that some people are to be avoided and largely which ones to avoid by now. But I have also met some of the most amazingly intelligent, kind, humanistic and reflexive people one could hope to meet.
What am I here for?
My journey through life has represented quite well my younger hopes for my life. I have ensured that many people whose lives I touch have benefited from that and that I have learned and gained from being with them and have a valuable repository of experience and memories that I treasure.
Where am I going?
Who knows? By the age of 50 I realised that “wishing was like picking your nose when you are dead,” to quote an artistic friend of mine, now a psychology professor. If I had not achieved some of what I had set out to achieve by now then I was on a very wrong track. But I have. And what I have achieved is more important to me than what I may not have achieved.
Is this it?
Yes. I have no illusions of a superior afterlife and whilst respecting those who do, for me to feel accepting of myself, I know I need to achieve my goals within my lifetime. And I have. If I look at what I have achieved, rather than what I have not achieved, I see that my internal ambitions have been met. Connecting with people, enjoying the visual arts, travel, a sense of identity – of knowing who I am. They were all critically important at 18 and still are. Money and status always were and thankfully always have been secondary to that. I am very lucky.
Maybe we do need to be careful what we wish for, because once we get it, after 30 years of hard work, we need to be happy with it. We spend so long in life working hard, climbing the ladder, moving forward, that I wonder if sometimes we forget to stop off periodically and enjoy the view.
Getting away from the daily life helped me to see this. If you’re as lucky as I am and can travel a little, I would highly recommend it. If only to discover who you are.