Tuesday, October 10, 2006


I feel as though I owe people an apology. So few blogs read, so few comments made, so little written here. Or maybe it’s me to whom I owe the apology?

I scribbled down the thoughts below a couple of weeks ago when I was trying to explore in my journal (something else I haven’t done much of lately) what my hidden motives might be for the way I was behaving. It all seemed too long-winded to post though; I was vaguely intending to rework it but I know that'll never happen, so here, by way of partial explanation for not being altogether here, it is...


How many people on their deathbed say “I wish I’d spent more time at the office?”

I seem to be behaving as though I’m fearful of actually being counted amongst those who might really say that. A few months ago I made a deliberate decision to become more engaged in my job – maybe not to the extent of spending huge amounts more time in the office, but at least being fully present to my work for the time I do spend there.

If you’ve read what I’ve written or implied here about my work, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m barking mad. Haven’t I said - perhaps even in these very words – that work - its pettiness, irrelevance, worthlessness - is killing my soul?

This change in attitude arose, I think, out of a deep instinct for self-preservation. Deeper perhaps than logic or even than feeling; one of those directions we take without necessarily being able to articulate exactly why, but just knowing that we need to go there. Now, a few months down the line, I can begin to identify the needs that were shaping that instinct – twin needs for identity and self-esteem.

Self esteem surely must be high on the list of factors necessary for mental well-being; if you don’t believe in your own value, your own intrinsic worth, you open the door to all kinds of demons to torment and abuse you. But where does self esteem come from? I wish I knew a simple answer to that. What I do know is that if you don’t have it, or if it is weak or damaged, any source which bolsters it is good.

I suppose it would be better for the source to be internal, if I didn’t need some form of daily reassurance that I’m an okay kind of guy. It doesn’t take much – a smile, a touch, a few words of acknowledgement; I’ve learned how to appreciate these things, how to make a little go a long way. But that need for external validation seems to be the way I’m made; I guess the source of that is way back somewhere in my upbringing, but that’s history mostly forgotten and in any case unchangeable.

I can see how it developed though and became they key to my early identity. At primary school, I was always bright academically but not outstanding (except in spelling, I seem to remember…). Never any good at sports or team games; I had very good craft skills but wasn’t “artistic”. At secondary school, I got good marks, but I wasn’t top of the class. Not to begin with. Somewhere along the line though, I learned the skill of passing exams and began to get exceptionally high marks; all of a sudden, I wasn’t invisible any more; I had an identity – something I could do that others couldn’t. The feeling of success and recognition was like a drug, and I became an addict. Before long, there was open (albeit friendly) competition – who could come top in most subjects; who could get the highest aggregate marks?

It was at this time that I was thrown out by the group of friends I was with. There was some pretext which I can’t remember, but I never believed it was the real reason. All I knew was that I’d been ostracised and I couldn’t understand why. I tagged along with another group. An odd mix – intellectual, anarchic, unconventional, free-thinking and with an intellectual’s disdain for rule-based authority. And smart enough not to get caught.

My marks in exams got better and better, excelling in maths and science and good right across the board – straight ‘A’s. The die was cast; my identity became tied up in those results – in other words, in external validation. All seemed to be going swimmingly, with an entrance exhibition (one step below a scholarship) to Cambridge University.

The first year seemed to go well enough; it wasn’t easy, but I thought I was managing okay. In the no-mans-land between taking the end-of-year- exams and getting the results, I fantasised about which one of my subjects I might have got a first in.

Any such thoughts were fantasy indeed. I got lower seconds in all of them. Very ordinary average or below average marks. I went from being top dog at school to feeling like an also-ran. I never recovered from that, either in the results – solid 2.2 throughout my time there - or in how I felt about them. I’d gone to Cambridge with a fascination for astronomy and with vague thoughts of doing post-graduate work in that field. But a good first was the minimum qualification; I lost interest overnight and wanted only to get of academia as soon as I could.

A Cambridge degree might have been the springboard to a successful career, but I never did find an identity in work; no career, no vocation, just a succession of jobs. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though – I may have found no identity in work, but I did discover it in parenthood, and for the last 25 years being a father to my children has, more than anything else, defined who I am.

But they’re virtually grown up now. We’re still very close as a family, but we’ve also encouraged self-sufficiency and independence - the oldest is only with us whilst he saves up enough to put down as a deposit on a place of his own; the next one, in Kenya at the moment, will be moving away in a few months; only our youngest remains nominally at home - and she’s currently away at music college.

So as one by one they leave, so too that particular part of my identity fades into the background. Still there; always there; but no longer holding the central, defining place. And I’m left once more wondering who I am and why I’m here. I look around and take stock of what I’ve got: a secure marriage, a collection of interests, another collection of commitments, and a job. Which of these can define who I am, can create a new post-fatherhood identity for myself?

Rightly or wrongly, I decided to try the job, at least in the short to medium term. I could not go on telling myself how much I hated the job, how much I wanted out, how worthless it all was. It wasn’t the job that was killing me – it was all those messages I was sending myself. So, given that the job occupies the largest single portion of my life, a fact which wasn’t going to change overnight (and which would in any case would require a step-change in confidence in order to make it change) the first step to a healthier self-image was to begin to believe in myself and in what I do here.

I know I’m walking a tightrope though. I have to remind myself never to forget that this commitment to work is only a means to an end; a necessary stepping stone on the path to recovery. Swallow the medicine, but don’t become dependant on it, or addicted to it. It would be all too easy to get caught up in organisational games; I might even be re-educated to the point where, like Orwell’s Winston Smith in 1984, I love Big Brother.


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