On 21st Century Guilt

I like to imagine myself a runner. But when the days grow dark during my commute home from work, I find it increasingly difficult to get out and about after work – not that it’s ever easy to muster up the energy for a run after an 8 hour day and commuting an hour on top of that. So I joined a gym. It makes me feel a little safer about running in the dark, I’m nice and toasty during my winter runs winter, and my $10 monthly gym fee is enough of a commitment that I feel guilty when I don’t exercise at least three times a week.

The problem comes when I think about treadmills, and wasted energy, and the energy required to operate a gym in general. I used to be a gym-goer during my college years, only to turn into a scorner of such places when I started running long distances. Why be inside on a machine when you can run in more beautiful, scenic, and interesting places? Why waste energy running on a rubber belt when there is so much ground to cover without any environmental trade off? As the sun goes down earlier and earlier, however, so my feelings are gyms have turned warmer. That is, until I get there and feel guilty about my wasteful exercise habits. Around and around the circular arguments go in my head.

It’s not so different from the guilt I feel about writing a blog. I hate how much time I spend in front of screens and go to great efforts to minimize my computer and TV time whenever possible. So why do I write in a format that requires myself to compose by screen and others to read by a screen, should they choose to access my end product? Or the guilt I feel about driving to the farmer’s market instead of taking my bike – even though 15 minute ride there is entirely uphill, my poor bike is dusty, my body could use the exercise, and I should not expect my car to take me everywhere I go.

Taking a step back from these first world problems, I realize that the true culprit isn’t necessarily gyms, daylight savings time, computers, cars, or even my own dismal motivation level – it’s the way in which I’ve bought into the time- and energy-sapping expectations and demands of today’s working world. Work is long, stressful, and demanding to the extent that I can’t easily partake in simple pleasures like writing by hand or biking around town in the regular and balanced way that I’d like.

After college, I served for ten months on an AmeriCorps team in a state park, rising early to spend all day outdoors, and easily making it home by 3:15 after a frequently enjoyable 8 hour workday. I was living on minimum wage but my expenses were low too. A uniform was provided for me, there was a reimbursement for my costly hiking boots, and living with my parents for a bit, followed by my then-boyfriend now-husband made for affordable living situations. After my ten months were up, it wasn’t too difficult to move into part time work at a decent hourly wage, the type of jobs (running an after school program and dog walking) that essentially sustained my income level but afforded me more free time for hiking the trails at my beloved park, walking my dog, exercising at length, and pursuing creative projects.

It was also easier to write off my dog walking day job as a temporary stint since I was in graduate school at the time. If I had not the least concern what others thought of me and my career choices, I might still be walking dogs today, content with my ability to exercise and get outside every day while working with the most joyful and stress-relieving creatures I know. Guilt and worry set in after graduation though, alongside dreams of starting a family and maybe buying a home one day. I could probably eke out a meager existence as a dog walker in the long term, but I got ahead of myself imagining how we’d be able to handle pregnancy, childcare, diapers, etc. on my husband’s salary when I had to take off after the birth. Note: we’re certainly not having kids for at least five years so these concerns were unbelievably premature. I was certainly over-thinking things, but a nagging worry in the back of my mind kept pointing to the state of the job market, how many years of experience are necessary to advance, the rising cost of living, and the mediocre salary range in my field of choice.

I caved and took a 9 to 5 position that grew out of a part time internship. It’s a job that I enjoy when boiled down to its essence minus the bureaucratic concerns and administrative demands that overly complicate my life: I help people. That’s what I love to do. Nothing more than that. But in the modern job market, I could never dream of finding an affordable-wage, part-time career in the social services nor can I imagine how to balance a modest-salaried, full-time social work position with raising a family and leading a positive, healthy, worthwhile life. I can’t even seem to exercise on top of a 40 hour work week without reeling from the multitude of repercussions stemming from my decision to become a gym member.

So are job flexibility and job integrity completely at odds? Are we sacrificing too much of our lives in order to make even the most modest, if not minimal of livings? I’m afraid that the answer may be heading in the direction of yes on both these counts. I work on consuming less stuff, simplifying in every way possible, and going the DIY route whenever I can to make my life more meaningful, affordable, and stress-less. But our society is not conducive to such a lifestyle on a grand scale. Certainly some pockets of the country have specific cultures that allow for a better balance between work and play, that make it easy to tread lightly and stress less (places like Portland and Seattle come to mind). These are largely, however, major exceptions to the ultimate social rule of suburban sprawl, vehicle-dependence, technology-addiction, and consumption.

While composing this post, I’m overcome with guilt and a sense that this is too negative a piece to put out in the world, ripe with complaints and devoid of viable solutions. Much as I decry the way in which expectations for working life have gotten out of hand alongside the ethical concerns inherent in our lifestyles, there’s an underlying sense that things will always be okay in my life. Not because of divine intervention or my can-do attitude, but because of the most basic privileges I was afforded at birth – loving and generous parents, a middle class family in a good community with excellent public schools, the knowledge of what social skill set is necessary to thrive in society, the all-encompassing cushion of an upper-middle class upbringing. I know my family will always allow me to fall back on them if need be, much as I will resist doing so if it comes to that. Maybe that is where all this guilt truly stems from – the fact that I have the luxury to chose integrity in my career while sacrificing my salary, the fact that free grandparental childcare is just across town, that someone can lend me money for a down payment at zero interest, that I’m not buried in student loans, that even if I can’t make rent I will always have a roof over my head (even if it is the same one I stayed under during my teenage years, minus Dashboard Confessional posters and bookshelves stuffed with Jane Austen and young adult fiction).

There is a growing recognition of the heavy footprint of our lifestyle among certain segments of the population. But some people are struggling to make ends meet too much to consider the ethical dilemmas of sourcing their wardrobe from Walmart or the environmental implications of driving their kid to school instead of putting them on a dangerous and unreliable bus. It is pure luxury for me to worry about how wasteful my half-hour run on a treadmill is. But I won’t relent on the strains of the 40 hour work week, for myself, for people earning minimum-wage everywhere, for anyone doing honest work. When less effort is required to balance the work life of Americans with the good, necessary, and simple things in the rest of their lives, then we can all be so fortunate as to worry about the implications of the lifestyles we work so hard to enjoy.

Interesting how what started at the gym as another instance of blaming my job for my reckless exercise choices has quite seamlessly (at least to my twisted mind) become an essay on inequality, privilege, and worker’s rights. The sociologist in me is feeling very triumphant right about now.

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