The Office Worker’s Lament

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Sometimes I think about my coworkers. And how they have lives that are much bigger than the place we work.

Their lives are spread wide and bright and orange as fall leaves on the wet ground. And yet they spend many, many hours of their lives cooped up, typing and clicking away at their computer box machines.

I do too.

It’s not quite clear to me what would be the best use of our time in this human life. I can say, as that modern prophet Peter from the movie Office Space did, that humans aren’t meant to spend their lives indoors, in cubes, staring into the digital abyss. 

But these screens have also become the windows into our souls. And it’s part of the fabric of society now. Most of us don’t hunt or work on farms. Or in coal mines. And I’m grateful that I don’t work in a coal mine. But hunting or farming, I think, wouldn’t be so bad.

And back to my coworkers. They do things, have weights and dreams and love lives on their minds, that I know take up more space in their minds than the work we do. Their kids and friends and video games. Their worries about death. But we don’t spend much time talking about these things in a really deep way.

I often see my coworker on his break, going for his walk ritual as the sun glistens white on the wet road, talking on his cell phone, and I wonder who he’s talking to. I wonder what connections he has that I’ll never see illuminated in my own world, because I have my own.

I’m just one bright little human too. I have a thousand things that I’ll never share with my coworkers, because I’m too embarrassed or too worried or because the nature of a small office, or any office, is that it’s contrived. It’s artificial. A copy of the Mona Lisa.

No matter how cool your office is, no matter how many ping pong tables it has or how relaxed the atmosphere is, you’re still indoors.

In the movie Office Space, at the end, Peter, having had his fill of the drab, Dilbert-esque desert of corporate office life, takes a job as a construction worker. This isn’t so bad, he reasons. It’s outside, I’m getting some exercise. This is the life. He smiles and squints into the noonday sun. He has arrived. Then his fellow construction worker shakes his head as if to say, “Whatever, man,” and they collectively shovel some more dirt into a pile.

This final scene of the movie always puzzled me. I wasn’t quite sure what the message was. Construction work didn’t seem much better than dull office life to me. But Peter thought it was.

And then there are my coworkers. Those humans I see everyday.

My office is nothing like the opaque, human-less kind that emerged a couple decades ago—the kind of office which Peter so despised. I don’t have to wear a suit, and I can spend a considerable amount of time socializing with my coworkers, and I’m in a spacious office rather than a cubicle, and I know my boss well and he doesn’t say things like, “Is somebody having a case of the Mondays?” when I have a bad day. For the most part, people at my work listen. And they trust me.

I think a lot of people work in offices like that—ones which are open and friendly rather than stale and soul crushing. Most offices are probably somewhere in between, though.

The tech industry, they say, seems to have taken this whole office thing to an extreme—creating this strange chimera of office life and adolescent behavior, where software “engineers” are pampered with free soda and pulled pork sandwiches, where kids sit on bean bag chairs and type nonsense into laptops, and somehow that makes up for the unreasonable deadlines and wanton venture capitalism and hunger for money- money-money. But I don’t work in the tech industry. So I don’t know anything about that. Just rumors, I suppose.

But anyway…

I often vacillate between the extremes of hating my job and being deeply grateful for it. It’s fairly easy, to tell the truth, and the low-stress of it frees up my energy to focus on my family and social relationships and various interests. But other times it feels like a prison of effortlessness. It’s too easy, and thus lacks meaning, and it makes me worry if I’m wasting my time.

I worry that I’m not getting good at anything. Where is the sense of craftsmanship, mastery, the long haul of building skill over time?

When it’s late, and everyone but me has gone home, and I’m in the office alone, and the sun has gone down but I’m still staring into my computer screen, my crystal ball, I sometimes feel more connected than the inter-connection I’m supposed to have with my coworkers. Those people I know. I think.  

We’re connected, yet so far away. And as dramatic as that all sounds, and as the time on the clocks ticks, I just do what I do.