Studs Terkel introduces his classic book, Working, first published in 1972, with a disheartening statement about the nature of work. His statement is just as relevant today as it was in the 70s.
“This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body… To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.”
A friend of mine, recently dismissed from a contract position, called the violence “social vandalism.” This seemed appropriate. The term vandalism comes from the Vandals, an ancient Germanic people, who overran Gaul, Spain, North Africa, and then Rome in 455 A.D. ruthlessly destroying public property.
Work can be ruthless in its destruction of lives and, from the victim’s perspective, often seemingly aimless in its path of destruction. My friend suspects his dismissal was instigated by the complaints of a colleague. The contracting agency told him people had complained he was “too pushy” in getting work done. A stellar review, an award for his work, and being told by a number of colleagues that he had been a key contributor to increased departmental efficiency didn’t matter. The complaint came from someone with social capital.
“I can deal with the economic hardship of being unemployed. Economic hardship is not personal or intentional,” he confided. “It’s the maliciousness of this situation that’s hard to take. Why? What is the motivation for doing this to someone? I wasn’t jeopardizing the position of the person that complained.”
“You came in from the outside and upset status quo,” I told him. “That person probably did think you jeopardized their position. The lens you view the situation through is what you consider to be rational. Rational is subjective – people make decisions based on their emotions and insecurities. People make decisions to protect themselves, their egos.”
Do I think that sharing my commentary will make my friend feel better about his situation? No – not immediately, probably not ever. At best, in the future it may provide perspective. But a victim of social vandalism cannot be expected to quickly dismiss his or her emotions, just as the person who has committed the act will not let go of his.