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    She stays quiet for quite some time. “You know,” she then says as she tucks her pen and notepad in her purse, “I've been actively involved in community theater for almost a decade. The founder of the group has asked me several times over the years if I wanted to be involved full-time. He offered me way less than half the pay and said I'd work nearly a third more hours than I do in my current job. But it'd be work I really enjoy. Work I consider play. And work that I consider, for myself, timeless, because I believe that good theater has the capacity to help us see the world and ourselves in new ways.

    “But I've never taken his offer seriously. It's not just because I've been scared. And it's not really that I'm all that hesitant to live more frugally. I think it's mainly because I've never seen it as work. I've always had this prejudice that if I didn't up and move to New York and try to become a famous actress - a star - then I should never try to make money in this field. I've always looked at my community theater work as a ‘hobby,’ because I convinced myself it was never appropriate to settle for something so ‘low’ in the world of acting as that kind of work.” She slaps her forehead and says, “What a horrible prejudice I've had!” She says this last sentence so loud that a number of participants are startled out of whatever reverie they were in. “Community theater is my love and passion. I have no interest at all in moving from here to New York and trying to become a famous actress. I want my life's work to be my involvement in community theater.”

    To my surprise, she stands up. “I'm gonna go for it!” she proclaims. I almost think she is going to run from the room and go straight to her investment banker boss, tell him she quits, and then scoot directly to the community theater group. But then she seems to realize that it is 10 P.M., too late to make much more headway tonight. Still standing, she looks around at us, wondering if she has anything to be embarrassed about. She sits back down, smoothes the folds in her dress, and then, in her best Scarlett O'Hara impersonation, says, ''After all, tomorrow is another day!"

    “The best I've been able to figure,” the graphic designer chimes in, “is: Try to find something that you love so much that you would do it for free. Now, I'm sure that the first thing that comes to mind when you first hear someone say something like this is ‘It sure sounds nice on paper. But it isn't practical.’ Wrong! It is practical. Because if you don't find that job that feeds your passion, that makes you excited to get up in the morning and give everything you have to your work, then what are you left with?”

    Another participant says, “It seems like in certain ways your existence is much less worthwhile than it could be if you don't take well-calculated risks and do what you really want to with your work life. I have so many acquaintances who make loads of money, but their spirit is dead. They're like the living dead. So money isn't the answer when it comes to finding work that you don't mind being 'stuck' in.”

    I notice that the woman who initially posed the question has been scribbling furiously, as if taking down every word the graphic designer has said. She stops abruptly, clicks her pen as furiously as she had been scribbling a moment before, and looks up. “I recently read Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition,” she says. “I've been haunted by one thing she wrote. I think I’m quoting this right: ‘The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things - works and deeds and words - which would deserve to be at home in everlastingness.’ I guess I've been trying to discover what deed I want to do, and what deed I can do, that will deserve a home in everlastingness. I mean, I think we all have some unique ability that we can transform into our life's work and passion. At least, it's what I choose to believe. And yet, because I choose to believe this, I get very frustrated when I feel, like I do too much of the time, that I'm not putting all my energies toward something that will put my imprint on the world and will in some way be everlasting.”

    A rotund man, his breathing so loud and labored that at times it distracts me from the dialogue, has just ordered his second carafe of wine. Now he says, “Life is a job.”

    “Life is a job,” I repeat, and press further. “Which I guess means, among other things, that the business of living itself requires work of a sort, which makes it a job of a sort.”

    “But even as an adage, life's not only a job, at its best, is it?” I go on. “Or at least, aren't there all kinds of jobs - and can't we characterize them as everything from terrible to wonderful, and many things in between, based at least in part on the kinds of work they require us to do? At its best, can't a job be a form of self-expression, requiring us to work in a way that, far from being a drag, is fulfilling? Can't the right kinds of jobs represent a form of stuckness that can actually help us to be freer?”

    The bequeather of the truism does not respond. He pretends to be fully absorbed in pouring his next glass of wine. He appears to have wanted to spew forth his adage without being subjected to subsequent critique or comment of any sort.

    I turn to the secretary. “Maybe,” I say, “the job you're stuck in can be what motivates you to seek a job that is more self-fulfilling. Emerson said a person is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best. I think it would make more sense to say something like, a person should put his heart into finding the type of work that'll inspire her to give it everything she's got. And it may take quite a circuitous route to discover work like that. In my case, if I hadn't been stuck in a number of jobs that ranged from what I'd call lousy to not-so-lousy, to somewhat rewarding but still not good enough, I doubt I'd ever eventually have hit upon what I'm doing now - which for me is the ideal job. All these other jobs compelled me to work hard to discover more fully who I want to be.”

“Sounds like we should start out by examining our ‘philosophies of stuckness,’” I say, all the while thinking that one of the most vexing issues in the entire history of philosophy has been that of whether we are free to do as we please, or whether out actions are largely determined by factors and circumstances beyond our control. One intriguing view on this issue is that of the Dutch-born philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who maintained that a human being isn’t constrained by outside forces, but rather is “determined” by forces and conditions arising from her own nature. Spinoza felt that this was actually a type of freedom, which he called “self-determination.” He meant by this that our physical and mental makeup “joins forces” with out past development and out present relationship to the world around us to determine this course we chart in out lives. For these view, he was expelled in 1656 from the Jewish community in Amsterdam as a heretic.

    “I think there's good stuck and bad stuck,” says the woman with the yucky job. “And I feel like I'm bad stuck. And my job is the culprit for it. If I liked my job, I wouldn't mind so much the other areas of stuckness-breathing, my body, my mind, the universe, what have you.”

    A man who has been standing by the entrance to the cafe for quite some time, as if undecided whether he wants to take part, now joins the discussion. He says he works for a pittance as a freelance graphic designer for what he calls “socially conscious nonprofit groups.” He goes on to say, “Following what these two have been saying, even if you have a job you love, you're still 'stuck,' in a sense. Because you're still imprisoned in the workaday world. Even if you love your job, maybe, if you had your druthers, you wouldn't work at all. But you can't not work, unless maybe you're filthy rich-and even the filthy rich probably have to work at least a little bit at staying filthy rich. So you're stuck, trapped, in a prison of sorts, even if it's a prison you love.”

excerpted from Socrates Café from Page 63 :


At a Socrates Café in San Francisco held on National Secretaries’ Day, a somewhat harried-looking woman sits silently while I ask for a question. Like someone who is dying to propose a question at the same time is afraid to ask, she keeps raising her hand halfway in the air, then jerking it back down just as I look her way.

    “Do you have a question?” I ask her.

    “No,” she replies while her head protests, nodding up and down.

    “I think you have a question,” I say.

    “Well,” she replies, “I guess I do. But I don’t know if it’s appropriate for a philosophical discussion.”

    “I bet it is,” I say.

    That does the trick. She blurts out, “How can a sensitive, intelligent person get stuck in a lousy job?” It seems a catharsis of sorts for her to have purged herself of this question. It turns out this newcomer to the gathering is a secretary for an investment banker.

    She goes on to say, “I work in a cubicle with no windows in a nice-paying job with no future. I want so much more out of my working life.” She sighs. “But here I am, stuck.”

    “Isn’t the human condition one of stuckness?” says a slight, swarthy man with shoulder-length coarse hair and an usually deep voice. “I’m stuck in this body. I am stuck with and in the mind I have. I am stuck in this universe. I’m stuck with breathing if I want to keep living. So I’m stuck all around.”

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