Tuesday 2 December 2014

Beyond WIshing

It is Advent, so my theme for the next three weeks is hope. The best friend of hope, I will argue, is effort. Its worst frenemies are dreams.

My generation was the first to grow up from the cradle to be told we could be anything we wanted to be although "housewife" was removed from the preferred option list. And, come to think of it, the "you can be anything you want to be" message was aimed more at the girls than the boys. Unfortunately, the tellers forgot to add "if you work your butt off and succeed at the political games that are inevitably part of any workplace worth working in."

Young Seraphic (sulking in her room): I can hardly wait until there's no more going out to the schoolyard for recess.

Older Seraphic (appearing in a puff of smoke): Listen, kid, when you're an adult, the schoolyard gets moved into the school and recess gets mixed up with work.

Young Seraphic (unfazed as she rather expected such appearances): What do you mean?

Older Seraphic: I mean schoolyard bullying is kid stuff next to what happens in the work world. You have to learn to get along with those people so you can learn to get along with people at work. You need to make allies and to make your enemies think that you are their allies. You need to smile a lot and not say what you really think. You can write that down when you get home.

Young Seraphic: Like a spy?

Older Seraphic: Not exactly. More like an actress.

Young Seraphic: I'd like to be a spy or an actress.

Oldwe Seraphic: No, you wouldn't. What you would like to be is a millionaire by age 25, so that you can spend your adult life in comfort while pursuing your hobbies. So this is what you are going to do: first you are going to do a B.A. in Slavic Studies, majoring in Russian, and then you are going to do an MBA.

Young Seraphic: But Russians are Communists. Their economy is horrible. They might even nuke us out of envy and spite. What crazy impractical scheme is this? I can't learn Russian!

Older Seraphic: Yes, you can. Don't argue with me.

Young Seraphic: But I hate math. I am sure you need to be good at math to do an MBA.

Older Seraphic: How do you know? You're only twelve. Learn Russian. Learn Russian. Learn Russian. MBA. MBA. MBA.

Young Seraphic: I can't hear you. LA LA LA LA LA! I don't want to be a businesswoman; I want to be an intellectual.

Older Seraphic: You want to live your own private Brideshead Revisited, that's what you want. Well, okay. But don't think Charles Ryder. Think a happier Julia. Being Lady Julia will take serious money which you can make by---

Young Seraphic: LA LA LA LA LA LA! Not listening! Can't hear you!

Oh look. I mentioned Brideshead Revisited. A bearded madman once told me that this book was responsible for ruining countless lives. He waved his arms around. The hems of his trousers were in shreds. I don't know about lives, but I suspect it ruined countless university careers.

Waugh's nostalgia for the best days of his life was so powerful it made many of his readers equally nostalgic for the best days of his life. They decided that the best way to spend university is drunk with attractive men friends, flirting with homosexuality, wearing smart 1920s clothing, pursuing as many of the hobbies of English aristocrats circa 1926, and not doing any work. The people with whom you don't want to associate yourself are called the working classes for a reason, old chap: they work. (Shudder of revulsion.)

I spent my undergraduate years sulking that university was not actually like Oxford in the 1920s*. I also spent two years wishing I understood Ancient Greek and Latin instead of actually doing the hard work this required, and then spent three years putting off writing English Lit essays until the last possible moment, when I would stay up all night and score As and even A+s from professors deeply grateful to have a student who could write. My cumulative GPA did not recover from the first two years, but at least I was not expelled.

Of all the years I wish I could have back, I wish I could have back the undergrad ones. I remember crying over this when I was thirty or so, living in a bachelor flat and working as an office temp. I asked myself what I wanted more than anything on earth, and it was to do my B.A. over again, to get a stellar GPA so I could get into a Ph.D. program.  My therapist suggested that, since I was so religious, I do an M.Div., and so I did. I worked my butt off to get the marks that would get me into a Ph.D. program, and, lo, I did get into a Ph.D. program.  February 24, 2005: at the time, the happiest day of my life.

Some people take a "sprezzatura" attitude about work. They work very hard, but in secret so that it looks like they are effortlessly brilliant. If you say, "Goodness, you must have worked very hard for your success!" they get mad. But speaking as one who got A-plusses as an undergrad for my one talent (and almost no work), I value a work ethic over easy brilliance. Writing better than 90% of English Lit students is easy for me. Hard work is hard.

For dreams--which are basically just fantasies--to become as solid as hopes, effort is required. Sure, it's fun to buy a lottery ticket--and we do--but you would sound silly if someone asked what you hoped for in the future and you said you hoped to win the lottery.

Hopes can be simple. I hoped to become a better housekeeper, and now I am a better housekeeper.  I am a better housekeeper because I grit my teeth and do at least two hours of housework a day.  Hopes can be ambitious. I hope to buy an interesting house or flat with B.A. one day.  And hopes can be slow to realize: I hope to become really great friends with my niece and nephews as they grow up and to become friends with many courtesy nieces and nephews, too.  Finally, hopes can be supernatural, for I long to see God without being blasted to bits.

This will also take work---and not just work, of course. There needs must be prevenient grace. A good prayer before work might be "Dear God, please give me the grace to do the work that I need to do to realize my hopes." Otherwise, we're at risk of Pelagianism.

*To be honest, though, my happiest memories of university do include wine-fuelled shenanigans that do, I realize, bear a passing resemblance to the halcyon college days of Evelyn Waugh. For that I have my dear friend Trish to thank. Fortunately Trish is and was absolutely nothing like Lord Sebastian Flyte. Nor is or was she at all like Anthony Blanche, although one of my most vivid memories is of us reciting "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock" on campus at the top of our lungs, possibly (although not necessarily) while drunk.


  1. Interesting post.

    A question: Would you seriously have been happy doing an MBA? Do you think you might have had the aptitude? Do you think everyone might?

    I ask this because I have been reflecting on similar themes lately. I worked really hard as an undergrad and now I'm a postgrad (I'm doing a Master of Music Performance in classical guitar.) Sure, this doesn't lead to a job with a title like Classical Guitarist at a firm like IBM, but I love my teaching and performing work. The pay can be pretty good although as a freelancer I don't have salaried position. I'm my own boss, I set my own pay and hours and schedule (mostly) and it's work I do from home, meaning that if I ever I have babies, I won't have to trudge off to an office in an urban hellscape somewhere to contribute financially.

    I went to my friend's workplace the other day. She's an industrial engineer. I think that she enjoys her work for the most part, but I tell you with total honesty that I just couldn't do it. I couldn't. The "corporate speak" in the company brochures I read made me grieve for the English language, the sea of charcoal suits made me depressed, and the snippets of sales meetings I witnessed looked like what might be in store for me if I end up in Hell.

    I really feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be, and I really truly believe that I could never have done an MBA or an engineering degree or an IT degree without developing a depressive illness. Are other people just more...versatile than me?

  2. Some are, some aren't! But if you can make your own living doing something you enjoy--and it sounds like you get paid better (and more often) than I do--that's the important thing. To be frank, I am not sure if I was MBA material or not! But I am quite sure that if I were ever to be in an office again, the kind with suits, I would want to be the boss (or A boss)!


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