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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON VALUES
: Leaving the Rat Race

What You Do Is Not Who You Are

Every day Americans head out, lined up in traffic on their way to jobs even they would say define them: 'I'm a teacher. You're a doctor. My father was a janitor.' But what happens to one who opts out of the to-and-fro, and what role might the government have to play?

September 24, 2000|ROSIE LEE | Rosie Lee is a freelance writer living in Westlake Village

Looking ahead without a job is sort of like the drop point on a Ferris wheel--when it seems like free fall, just before the centrifugal force hits and your insides, having gone whoosh up into your chest, create this feeling of extreme excitement laced with panic.

At 48, I chose to leave a job I loved because I needed to realign the boundaries of my work life. After several months of personal restoration, I found myself struggling with the notion that I no longer had context for my life, or so it seemed in moments of uncertainty. I no longer had something to "do."

Eventually I settled into the pursuit of writing and other creative ventures in several mass media, but at first the unemployment phenomenon was unsettling. The initial discomfort transformed over time into a rich discovery, as I understood that I am not in fact defined by my occupation. This little aha! was challenged by one of the most commonly asked questions, "What do you do?"

There is a part of me that wishes I had a simple answer to that query, but I wasn't destined for that--as became obvious when I looked for a job after college. I had been told that office experience was important so I looked for work in one. Some ingrained part of my mind convinced me that the trodden path was one I should follow so I tried to conform, figuring I'd eventually be happy doing something tried and true.

At 23, with my fine college credentials, I tried to get a "regular" job--meaning normal, not steady. I was thrilled to discover temporary work. It seemed perfect for the part of me that wasn't ready for a full-time job.

I started typing classes but rote learning wasn't my forte, so that didn't last long--which was why I became a receptionist. One such job had me sitting at a financial management office in my long, homemade corduroy skirt, eating my brown-bag lunch with the ticker tape going above my head. When the office manager kindly suggested that working there didn't seem to suit me, I readily agreed and out the door I went. I had started to feel that I needed a seat belt to hold me in my chair anyway.

*

I tried other things. Substitute teaching in a middle school didn't last but a day, when the kids tipped over the desks on their way into class. I tried working in a hotel, as my father had, thinking maybe it ran in the family. It didn't.

Enough. It was time to try being myself and see what would happen if I did what I wanted instead of what was expected. Some thought me idealistic--or, worse, unrealistic. But I believed that work could fortify my sense of well-being, and until I found that, satisfaction would elude me.

While adrift in the sea of uncertainty, a bit of serendipity happened--I was offered a job in a nonprofit educational organization. It didn't pay a premium wage but fulfilled my need to do meaningful work. On the contentment level the rewards were real. I had a good time and loved the chance to work in an environment that seemed to integrate my inside and outside worlds.

It was a major decision--to follow my heart instead of a career path--but one I've never regretted.

How does one live outside the box called "normal" even for a moment, when who you are is defined by what you do?

When I stopped working full-time in 1998, I had spent the better part of 26 years working in an educational arena where learning the difference between head and heart was fundamental. When I began to sense that I needed to slow down, work less and feel more, it was a challenge. It took some time to distinguish between the emotional attachment to my position and the deeper sensitivity coming from my inner self, which like a jealous lover, simply wanted more attention.

I liked what I was doing, so why stop? Follow my feelings if they go against what I thought I should be feeling? Management changes and company restructuring no doubt stimulated these musings, and as the work environment shifted, it became clear that I needed to move along.

The curious thing, once I finally did leave, was the fact that one day I was somebody and the next I simply was not. E-mails, messages, faxes and people who wanted to talk to me evaporated overnight.

*

How flimsy the reality of it was. I wasn't a victim of dot-com implosion or corporate downsizing. I wasn't the proud parent of an honor student at the local elementary school or the wife of a successful working man. I was unemployed by choice, not chance.

People wanted to call it midlife crisis, but to me it was midlife in focus.

Wafting in the jobless breeze, I didn't have a corporate parachute with a snazzy severance package but I had a whiff of just me, still there, feeling fine and enjoying life itself.

Circumstances often appear to outline who we are and certainly can affect the way we feel about ourselves. One of my biggest and most delightful discoveries has been to see beyond the me that does, to the me that simply is.

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