Friday, April 29, 2011

A Decent Job.

I had a decent job once.

It lasted less than three years and gave me a greater sense of worth than I found in mine-working, fixing roofs, stacking punch cards, soldiering, insurance underwriting, bricklaying, paving, carpentry, general reporting, financial journalism, broadcasting, management consulting, teaching and writing. Not all of these were professional, but they certainly were functions that I was exposed to and became adept at enough to earn a living from them.

I had a decent job once. Its critical performance areas covered nursing, bronchial physiotherapy, housekeeping, cooking and cleaning.

In 2002 Kathy was diagnosed with hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP). It was a frightening affliction to befall a partner of nearly 40 years, leaving us with the prospect of gradually deteriorating muscle control, growing incapacity and moving from crutches – to wheelchair – to bed. There was some hope. We could retard the atrophy with rigorous exercise and this set off a regime of incessant badgering and benevolent acrimony.

Two years earlier, I had undergone a double by-pass, slowing down my professional work and billings for the consultancy I had founded a decade before in rescuing another ailing business. The additional distraction of the plight of a much loved companion erased from the minds of others the memory of risk, long hours, fear and insecurity in establishing a viable consultancy with what we believed to be an important new paradigm in business. One described by Raymond Ackerman as “the way of the future, the whisper of tomorrow.” One we swore we would sell even on bicycles if we had to.

I had a decent job once.

It was forced upon me by fate and financial vulnerability caused by a confessed misrepresentation of the state of a company in which I had the largest share, a fire sale of that share and a timing of those actions to coincide with a period of intense personal stress and distraction. That is the way of the world so I reflect upon it without malice, acrimony or even the slightest sense of spite.

I mention it purely because it was an important thread in my life’s tapestry that explains why I could not afford to abandon Kathy to the aloofness of institutional care; even when her condition deteriorated to being hospitalised six times in as many months in 2004; when she had been declared dead in an ambulance on two occasions; and when she was aspirating up to five times a day, each time instilling an intense fear of suffocation.

It explains too my desire to become a do-it-yourself bronchial physiotherapist, to learn the art of inserting a suction pipe down the trachea while avoiding the oesophagus. My lack of proficiency was risky, but adequate enough to ensure that her lungs did not collapse during sleep. It was also good enough for the frail care institution where she was held for a short while, to call me for help in the early hours of the morning.

I shopped for all kinds of gadgets that would make her life comfortable. To the point where one day, sensing my concerns about finances she lamented: “I’m sorry that this is costing so much money.” My response was a spontaneous and deeply sincere commitment that everything we had would be used to ensuring her treatment and comfort. In that moment, all concerns about provision left me. For the first time in my life I was left with the lasting and profound taste of the power of an unconditional act of generosity, of minimum expectations, of acting in the moment and of giving from the heart. All these things were alien to my being a mere few years before.

It made me question the real understanding of “living for today”. Ask anyone what they would do if they knew that today was to be their last and many will respond with a litany of frivolous and self gratifying events. That’s how self absorbed most of us have become. We only realise the futility of these things when it dawns upon us that our last day will also be the last our loved ones will have with us. The question then should not be how we would act if it were our last day, but rather how we would act if it were the last day of someone who is close to us.

I had a decent job once.

One of its functions was to clean up after someone who no longer had bladder- or bowel-control. On one occasion she bravely tried to reach the toilet but failed before spilling it all over the bathroom floor. She watched as I cleaned and at the end pointed and said: “You missed a spot.” We laughed until we cried.

That gave me my deepest insight into the definition of decent work. For in that moment I remember drawing a distinct comparison between that activity and being in front of a camera interpreting and explaining one or other economic event to millions of people. “Have I been reduced to this?” I wondered. No! I had been elevated to that! It was a deep conviction informed by a simple comparison between the sense of achievement between the two states.

The most satisfying was the one stripped of all accolades, recognition and financial rewards. It was the one with the most menial of tasks. It was the one that was intensely and unconditionally focused on the need of another. It was the one where I could see the result and the profound gratitude of another. It was the one where I could witness the difference it made. It was the one where ego and self were totally irrelevant. It was the one where giving was fully unconditional.

Kathy died in the late winter of 2004. Two weeks before her passing, when she could no longer speak because of the collapse of her tongue muscles, we learned that she did not have HSP but MND or motor neuron disease. All of our efforts at trying to slow down the decline, her brave submission to our exaltations of exercising were not only fruitless from the outset but were becoming increasingly impossible for her to do. MND has no known cause and no known cure. We were left with months of intense remorse about how differently we would have acted had we known that.

I had a decent job once.

And its definition is very different from that of Cosatu or the ILO which says: “Decent work is the availability of employment in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.” Like some lofty constitution in trying to say everything, it says nothing about the real texture of how that translates into a working environment.

My definition is simpler: “Decent work is that which gives a sense of meaning in being able to make a contribution to another.” There were elements of that in the decent job that I once had. Clearly not all can be applied to the workplace, but many can. Many are self defined. They are certainly not easy to capture. Those who can find them are the most fortunate among us.

Today, I can rest and reflect on how our darkest hours can also shed the most light.

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