My Mid-Life Awakening in Trumplandia
This past June, after 19 years at the same company, I resigned from my job. The reasons were varied and complicated. But suffice to say that despite my deep enjoyment of the work I did, and the way I found it meaningful and purposeful to the world as a whole, I could no longer operate inside of the work life I had created for myself while America fell. I couldn’t be a part of any system or environment that didn’t recognize that there was indeed a fall, and that this fall was caused by a white-lash of racism and sexism so fierce that it threatened to unseat not only our world standing but our humanity. This wasn’t just some kind of stumble and trip on the curb fall. It was a full-on plummet into a gaping chasm deeper than the Grand Canyon or the Mariana Trench kind of fall. If that computer programmer I worked beside wasn’t staring down into that same chasm, and was instead gazing at, oh let’s say a meme of Hillary Clinton being locked up behind bars, then that was someone I could no longer stand beside. No matter how smart he was at programming.
And so I left. And it was terrifying. It was the most terrifying and courage-mustering thing I’ve ever done. It went not just beneath the mask of my career persona, it went to the seat, the absolute foundation of who I am as a person. How would I continue to exist without making money? Did I deserve to exist? Am I really in the position to be able to subsist on savings while I look for another job? Who am I to society, and to myself, without a job to define me? As a white person, how do I contribute to the existing model of society without doing harm to other non-white humans? You could say that it was a full-on midlife crisis: one moment you’re living “the dream” and then one day you wake up and realize that part of the dream involved periodically killing kittens or something. (Think of all those ridiculously cute kittens appearing in videos and .gifs on your Facebook feed!)
I had really enjoyed my work. As far as corporations go, I found the one I worked for to be about 88% non-evil. That’s a B+. In the world of capitalism they’re doing something right. And yet, I couldn’t do it anymore. That programmer I mentioned earlier? He’s one of the smartest, most experienced programmers I worked with. He’s so smart he probably dreams in binary or object code or JSON or [insert any other techno language]. You get the point.
And yet, something changed. It happened gradually, but also all at once. It was as though there was a supernova the next galaxy over on November 8th, 2016. I saw it on a high-powered telescope, and knew it was heading this way. But, it took time for me to actually feel its effects. And most of the time I just kept waiting for someone to say Ha, got ya! This was just a big joke and there was no supernova! It was just a simulated light show. But that joke never came. Instead, wave after wave of shock hit until the supernova’s radiation was so intense it was undeniable. My co-workers who used to seem so benign, so good-hearted even if I disagreed with them politically, seemed now to be at best unaware of the plight of those not like them and the state of the world around them, and at worst monstrously uncaring and even rooting for others and the world around them to fail. And did I mention that all my co-workers were white?
At this point you’d probably deduced that little cherry bomb of info. After all, the scene I just laid out is a pretty white one: a corporate world where techy computer nerds geek out over memes of Hillary and dream in code. And this isn’t to say that there weren’t any women or people of color, or that the women that were there were Hillary-haters. There were lots of women, most of them white, and many were Hillary-lovers. But the group I worked with was disproportionately white and male. And even though my company had a high proportion of women in senior management and at the very top executive levels, my group’s management chain was all male and white. And this made a difference. It made the difference in the culture of the group post-election. I suddenly felt suspicious of my male colleagues, even a little paranoid about their intentions. Were they resentful of me as a woman? Had they finally had enough of all the ways feminism altered the physical work sphere? What did they think of me? After all, I was 99% sure that a few of them voted for Trump. And they did so even though they knew about the pussy-grabbing, and the threats to so many other non-white-male-able-bodied-heterosexual groups: the Muslim Kahn family whose son was a U.S. war hero killed in action, the Miss Universe fat-shaming incident, the handicapped reporter who was mocked for having a different body, the numerous threats to LGBTQ rights, etc., ad nauseum.
So is that what my coworkers thought about me? Was I someone whom it was socially acceptable to dismiss despite my many positive contributions to the group? The corporate culture was such that I couldn’t just outright ask this question, since although they advocated clear and open communication, every time I took that route I seemed to feel a backlash for it. I had what I thought was an open and honest relationship with my male supervisor. But the more I vented to him about being passed over for a promotion that I knew I deserved, the worse things seemed to get. And the more I felt slighted for not being promoted (despite many indications from management that that was the direction I was heading) the worse the political climate became. The way these two motifs interwove into a sad death spiral only accelerated my sense that I was starting to kill too many kittens. And being the crazy cat lady I am, I just couldn’t have it that way.
The morning I handed in my letter of resignation, I felt nauseous with fear. I haven’t been without a job for more than a month since I graduated college in the mid-90s. I was raised to always have the next thing lined up, to arrange and orchestrate before you leap. And although I had been somewhat steadily applying to various positions for the first half of the year, I had not had a single bite. What would happen to me? Would my partner and I lose the dream house we purchased three years ago because I won’t be able to contribute to my half of the bills? Would I be able to maintain a healthy diet, pay for my monthly prescriptions, sustain a relatively comfortable life? I was terrified. Who am I if I’m not working and contributing something to society? I want to work, and like to work. Resources aside, I need to work in order to provide for myself and my partner. But due to that sad death spiral, I was quickly becoming physically, psychically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally unable to continue working. I was spending most of my time in bed when I got home from work each day. I was barely functioning on the weekends either, and by the time Sunday night came and I was just starting to feel a glimmer of reprieve and space and possibility, it was time to go back to work for another slogging week.
I was miserable. Worse, I was becoming non-functioning. And so I called a meeting and handed in that letter to my supervisor. I made my final plea about the level of unhappiness I felt, and how I felt that the focus wasn’t on the job at hand and that instead management seemed to be focused entirely on other things that were detrimental to the health of the group. I wasn’t prepared for the moment during that meeting when I realized my supervisor was relieved I was resigning. It wasn’t until that moment that it dawned on me that perhaps as suspicious as I had become of them in this new Trumplandia, they had become equally so of me. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that that realization smacked me in the face like yet another wave of radiation emitted from the supernova. When my supervisor’s first response was to say that he’d give me a letter of recommendation for any future job, I burst out crying. A part of me had been hoping he’d ask me to stay. All those kittens I killed, all those 19 years of subjugated feelings, and all those little deaths of the self I suffered each time I did what was needed to make a living. It all came crashing in. My supervisor sat in stunned silence. I quickly composed myself, apologized, and went on to explain that after 19 years this was a big adjustment but one I’m looking forward to.
It was, and is, the truth. I am indeed looking forward to this new space of what’s next, what’s possible, in my life. It was the right time for me to leave my company. And although resigning was the scariest leap I’ve ever made in my life, I’m quite cognizant that the even harder work of finding my inner courage is upon me. It’s been three months since I left work, and most of that time I’ve been applying to just other flavors of the same corporate career. Fear operates in unconscious ways. I mean, I didn’t exactly leave my vanilla job of 19 years just to look for a butter pecan job. I left it to look for an exotic flavor of cake that I’m not even certain exists. I left it in search of something aching and exotic and fecund within myself.
All those years ago, when I started working at my company, I had to subvert parts of my personality in order to not only survive in the corporate world, but thrive. Those parts have been buried so long, they’re almost unrecognizable. For a while, this was okay with me. I was gaining other practical and meaningful things that are important to being a human in a capitalist society, namely, stability and material possessions. And I achieved those things. Long ago. And yet I continued to stay at my job. Breaking the habit of stability as an adult is a daunting mine-laden task. How much of your life are you actually willing to blow up in order to reclaim those long-atrophied parts of yourself? Should you blow any of them up? Isn’t it just an immutable part of the deal that as you age, there are parts of yourself that shouldn’t really be the ones in charge? Parts of yourself that are better left to the turmoil and turbulence of past developmental stages? These questions are the heart of what often evokes the mid-life crisis. And I can’t deny that there are elements of what I’m doing with my life right now that mimic the shape the content of a mid-life crisis. But I’m determined to frame it differently. I don’t want to simply traverse the mine-laden field. I want to consider the weeds that have overgrown it. I want to comb through those weeds and see what flowers, what possibility daisies, have been overcome by them. If I trigger all those mines, I might never know what else was right there on the periphery all that time.
This is painful. It’s especially difficult in the wake of feeling surrounded by hateful hoards of Trump voters. I’ve found myself alternately wanting to have deep heart-to-heart conversations with them, and wanting to shield myself from their hatred and beliefs. I’ve committed to working towards systemic change by joining political organizations and writing letters to the editor of various newspapers. I’ve been marching, starting with the Women’s March in Washington D.C., and most recently in Boston against a White Supremacist/KKK/Neo-Nazi gathering. How was I able to carry on for all those Obama years oblivious to this shifting landscape of hate? What does this say about me, and my ability to accurately assess the systemic structures I find myself in? What does it mean about my ability to integrate into society in a meaningful way if a significant portion of that society holds harmful and hateful beliefs towards me as a woman and as someone with a great deal of empathy towards those who are at a disadvantage in this capitalist, heteronormative, and white supremacist culture? How do I go on not only being an American, but being a flawed and beautiful human with existential ponderings and obsequious desires of peace for humanity and the planet?
I’m halfway through my life, and now it’s up to me to find those daisies that are bent towards truth, towards justice, towards a clear-hearted witnessing of this planet and its inhabitants. We literally cannot afford to lose anymore time. I cannot afford to lose anymore time and stand idly by, staring into a dark abyss, while the person next to me is experiencing the earth as flat. This is my one life. This is my one (divided) America. Making my way through this post Obama-clyptic land is going to continue to take all of my courage. But I will never again kill anymore kittens.