What Keeps Me in My Seat
January 9, 2013
I have to tell you guys, today was a BUMMER. Slow news day, dull paperwork, depressing winter weather and, oh yeah, I spent most of the day thinking about America’s epidemic of intimate partner violence, so there was that. This particular occupational hazard, the fact that it’s just plain depressing sometimes to spend so much of your life thinking about the horrors human beings visit on each other, isn’t one I complain about much. For the most part I’ve acclimated (read: “compartmentalized”), but it’s definitely the case that my kind of job weeds out the lightweights fast. Personal values truly are the only reason anyone stays in the domestic violence field for any length of time; the pay is low, ditto prestige, and, though it seems counter-intuitive, domestic violence advocates have a lot of political enemies, and so spend a good portion of their time fighting for basic things like funding, and also explaining basic things like how it’s still a crime to rape someone even if you’re married to her. All of this gets rather tiresome.
The tradeoff, of course, is that a job like mine gives you a satisfying sense of usefulness. Gone are those pesky existential inner monologues, re: Does my life have meaning, am I contributing to society?, etc. Never again will you have to ask “Am I making a difference?” because the answer to that is DUH. But there are other reasons I’ve stayed in this field for (egad!) eight years now, reasons that have less to do with my bleeding heart than they do with my stubborn brain: I am endlessly puzzled by domestic violence. I can’t figure it out, and that fascinates me, and so I’ve stayed. It’s such a complex and pervasive problem, and society has so far done such a spotty job of addressing it, that when faced with the whole bloody mess in aggregate all I can think is why? And also how?, and what will it finally take to get a handle on this thing? At the end of the day, it’s my desire to understand this problem, as much as it is an urge to do good, that’s kept me at my desk all these years, trying to work it out.
But focusing on the “how” and “why” of my work, as opposed to the day-to-day business of it, can be a little disorienting. I eventually started to notice that the new ideas I was having that were most interesting to me had less directly to do with my job than they did with the bigger picture in which my little job takes place: the big cultural machine that defines (and creates) social problems like domestic violence, and also decides where, when and how we’re supposed to solve them. Taking a big-picture perspective on your own work can be a strange exercise; it’s a little dizzying to be constantly switching your gaze from the task in front of you to the overarching social structure that’s setting the terms of that task. In a way, everything I do now has two steps to it: I look down and do the work at hand, then I look up and ask why I’m doing it. It’s not always the most comfortable way to go about things, but on the other hand it’s pretty interesting. What can I say? I don’t have cable; I have to make my own fun.
So what about you? What keeps you interested in your job? Is the big-picture perspective helpful, or does it get in your way? Tell me in the comments!