My parents first entered the workforce with lofty goals of contributing to social justice and healing the emotionally wounded. My father did alright as a social worker, though the cases were often overwhelming and the bureaucracy oppressive, but my mother’s ambitions to start a career as an art therapist weren’t exactly panning out, and it’s hard to have dreams when you can’t afford a mattress. They wanted to start a family and decided it was time for something more practical, so they abandoned their former dreams for a new form of martyrdom and fell into the herd by joining the Great American Rat Race.
What they don’t tell you about joining the rat race is how comfortable it can be. There’s a certain degree of stability that comes with working nine to five and a steady paycheck. Unlike my parents, I was raised in that comfort zone, and naturally, resented it passionately. Never knowing exactly how much money we had, I intuitively sensed what was reasonable and what was more than I could expect to possess. I had nothing lavish enough to show off or brag about, and nothing so shabby that I might be embarrassed. In short, our economic position was idyllically dull. My mother’s horror stories of her childhood spent in a roach infested apartment full of siblings and cousins seemed enthralling by comparison.
The inherent normalcy of our middleclass lifestyle instilled in me a yearning for the struggle that my parents had worked desperately to shield me from. At a young age I questioned whether comfort was equal to happiness, and though my parents insisted that they were content, the glaze over my father’s eyes at the end of the day told me otherwise. The fatigue induced by hours of sitting under buzzing fluorescent bulbs in an air-conditioned cubicle staring at a computer monitor horrified me. Reinforced by media representations of the corporate world as a mindless and inescapable loop of bureaucracy (“Office Space”), I assured myself that I would never, ever, succumb to The Man.
Now I’m spending my lunch break typing thoughts away for a minor dose of sanity as my nose inches closer and closer to the keyboard because I’m sitting in a broken office chair that sinks under the weight of my growing great American rat ass, not unlike my hopes and dreams. I drive home with eyes glazed over and no thoughts in my head because the emptiness just feels sort of cathartic, and when I arrive, I pour myself a beer and nuke a microwavable dinner because anything less bland just might remind me of what my life is missing. What they don’t tell you about the rat race is that there is no way to loosen a tie without being reminded of a dog scratching at his leash.
What they tell you is that the important thing is to hold on to the hope, because the rat race offers opportunity. The beauty of capitalism is that there’s a price to pay for everything. Someday I too can have a fashionable lifestyle and protect my children from feeling too deeply. It could be done another way, but then there’s the risk. The great American rat race is the quickest way to maintain the status quo, and there’s something to be said for certainty, no matter how insipid it may be.
What they don’t tell you about the rat race is that it’s bad, but it’s not that bad. Half the fun of working in the corporate world is whining loudly to coworkers about what an asshole my boss is over drinks at T.G.I. Friday’s on a Wednesday night. Plus, there are always weekends, holidays, lame office parties, benefits, incentives, and don’t forget the stability. Hell, if I’m lucky, I might even be able to sneak out of the office fifteen minutes early on “Casual Friday”. Essentially, it’s just tolerable enough for me to convince myself at least once a week that “Yes, this is worth it. I’m getting something out of this. Perhaps not fulfillment, but something, definitely something.”
My parents retired a few years ago after putting my brother and me through college. Dad got a part-time job at big-box hardware store, mostly to keep busy, but also to get a discount on power tools he never uses. They travel a lot. Italy two years ago, last year was Mexico, this year they’re spending a few weeks in Spain. “It’s all thanks to Siemens Corp,” they remind me. I nod and wonder how old I’ll be before I can appreciate the bounty of my toils. Will I make it? My rhetorical questions do little to counter the dogmatic belief that I have to try.
What they don’t tell you about the great American rat race is that there’s a fine line between giving in and giving up.