Several years ago I was working at the worst job I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some pretty crappy jobs throughout my life. I’ve scrubbed toilets as a maid in a motel and as a janitor at the university. I’ve sewn 500 waistbands on men’s tennis shorts per day with floor managers breathing down my neck to make me sew faster. I’ve changed filters in air conditioning units making one hour’s work last a full eight (boring!) and I’ve helped deliver newspapers in the dead of night.
But, this job wasn’t horrible because of my duties. Instead, it makes the top of my worst job list because the management simply didn’t value their employees. They continually made comments that left me and my co-workers feeling that we could be easily and quickly replaced. We were left out of important decisions and the list of rules we were to abide by not only grew every week, but changed every week. Although they pretended to listen to our concerns, our comments fell on deaf ears. We felt that they only paid us lip service. But I stayed for several years. Partly, I didn’t think that I could find another job in my field that paid as well and partly I figured that I could deal with my feelings by having a sense of humor. I thought that if I laughed at the rules and the derisive comments I could somehow insulate myself. Instead, I ended up becoming bitter and my humor quickly evolved into sarcasm and cynicism. Rather than rising to the challenge and becoming a valuable employee worthy of inclusion in decisions, I turned into the kind that really should be replaced. I hated going to work every day and they probably hated seeing me walk through the door.
But, more than anything I stayed on because I was fearful of leaving. I had grown comfortable and complacent. The thought of revising my resume, interviewing for another job and ultimately having to learn a new way of doing things with different co-workers and a different set of rules was daunting and downright scary. I’d been working in long-term rehab for many years and I knew the ropes. I also knew that unless I wanted to move to another town, which was impossible at the time, I would have to change settings. This would mean embarking on a very steep learning curve at perhaps a clinic, hospital or school. The thought of this left me with a knot of fear in my stomach. So, I stayed and I didn’t learn new things; I didn’t give any more of myself than absolutely necessary and I simply collected my paycheck. I felt rotten. I remember gazing out the upstairs window one night and making a desperate wish on the first star that my whole life would be different.
And then one day everything did change. I remember being outraged as I was eating my lunch wondering how I could deal with the latest dictum from the management when my co-worker, Erin said, “Hey Shelley, here’s a want ad in the paper for an OT at a clinic here in town. I didn’t even know they had OT’s down there.” I didn’t either, but I said, “Let me see that,” as I reached for the newspaper. I tore out the ad and kept it in my pocket all day. That night, my resume came out and it really didn’t take too much to revise. I applied for that job, fearing that I wouldn’t get it and also fearing that I would. It was a totally different setting and my duties would be markedly different. And then my current job blew up in my face. It was awful. And with that, the fear of moving on was finally less than the utter frustration of staying.
I remember that time as if it was yesterday. My emotions were so raw that everything that happened is indelibly imprinted on my brain. I recall entire conversations with my old boss; I see myself interviewing for the new job and I feel the thrill when I received the call that I had been chosen for that job. But, most of all I remember finally shedding the old me and embracing the change, the challenge and the new. I felt reborn. I knew that I had a new chance to make it all better…to make it all right and to basically re-invent myself. Finally, I wasn’t afraid anymore and I willingly accepted the steep learning curve and the new co-workers I would encounter and the chance to be and behave differently. It was nothing short of exhilarating.
I’ve been thinking about those days lately because I revisited one of my favorite poems by Rilke. This is an inspired translation by Robert Bly:
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
As if in ropes through what is not done,
Reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
Of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
Is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
Into the water, which receives him gaily
And which flows joyfully under
And after him, wave after wave,
While the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
Is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown
More like a king, further and further on.
Clumsy living…lumbering…as if in ropes…awkward. Yes. That describes me exactly when I was trying desperately to make something good out of a terrible situation. And yes, I clung to the familiar ground. I clung to what I knew far longer than I should have. And finally, the clumsy living became too much and I nervously let myself down into the unknown water.
I close my eyes and I feel the relief wash over my body again as I recall the openness, support and joy I found at my new employer. I learned again what it felt like to be valued and trusted, and I was received gaily. The learning curve was even steeper than I imagined, but it wasn’t a problem because I regained my passion for my profession and I delighted in learning new systems and treatment techniques. What I thought would be difficult became enjoyable. This new job was a combination of hand therapy which I knew, and pediatrics which I did not know. I learned to love the children I treated and I found my true, authentic self in helping them develop. And the water flowed under me joyfully, wave after wave, while I, marvelously calm allowed myself to be carried along…each moment more fully grown. That job eventually led to my private practice where I treat children in their homes and schools and daycares. And I continue to be carried along, knowing that in letting go of the familiar I am finally moving in the right direction. I know this because it is almost effortless and because every day I rejoice in the simple, yet crucial triumphs of my children. I love these children as my own and when finally after months of struggle a dear child can put together a puzzle by himself or when another can write her name, I willingly share their jubilation.
And for now, it is enough to remember this lesson. I want to learn this by heart so that the next time I resist change or fear the unknown I can take a deep breath, hold on tight and let myself down into the flowing water. And then I will let go and wait for the transformation from the awkward lumbering to the calm knowing as I move further and further on.