So much of what passes for “professionalism” in a corporate environment is dysfunctional in life as a whole. In fact, when it begins to be believed, as a principle for life, it actually becomes mental illness.
Neurosis: includes the inability to separate perception from reality. “My perception is my reality.” You hear it in corporate staff meetings. The inability to distinguish subject from object – the objectifying of experience. It leads to every manner of megalomania, pride, and fundamental bewilderment, and yet it’s such a simple error. You can’t run a business that way – you can only ‘belong’ to one – you make a good cog when you can’t tell real from feel. This is treatable, but it’s going to take heavy doses of a different environment. Neurosis populates most office communications with the ever-present obsession with perception. Reality, long ago, took a back seat – which is why, in performance based cultures, you just get more done with less.
Cognitive Dissonance: knowing a thing is so, but choosing to live as though it were otherwise. The ingrained pretense at work in so many corporate environments leads us to praise mediocrity, reward mere presence, profess affection where bitterness and strife exist, feign respect where respect hasn’t been earned, pretend interest when time is being wasted for everyone, proclaim devotion to the current corporate platitude or HR dogma- even when it’s patent nonsense… The list pretty much never ends. It’s an unending exercise in unreality, and it’s a form of illness that does lasting damage to the soul. This disease not only infects organizations, it unravels individuals. One of the reasons I like Google is that, fundamentally, how they live and what they say are transparent and in agreement.
Fear: it’s the key tool in power-based relationships and top-down structures. “Cover your ass” is the catchphrase. Where rewards are based on preference rather than performance, on pleasing the priviledged rather than producing results, fear is the natural keeper of order. The contemporary cubicle city is a virtual hot zone of phobias that grip workers like grim diseases sloughed off of the virus of terror. Do x or y will happen, don’t do y or x will happen – that’s the theory of motivation that “leaders” have embraced to the point that it’s systemic – it can’t be repaired, because the promotion and reward system preserves and extends its influence. Fear makes people care less about whether a project succeeds than whether they can’t be blamed for its failure.
And to all these sicknesses, we say a resounding NO. Without needing to be shrill or pugilistic, there are a cadre of us, living within the culture, though not of it, who work in and around it, near it, but never capitulate to the infection. Our safe suits are the hard strength of our own wills to exist as whole creatures. Psychologists refer to the phenomenon as “integration” or “integrity” – by which they mean the ability of the individual person to exist whole and in himself despite overwhelming opposition, temptation, coopting, and all the other advances of the culture against the man. They refer to the opposite state as “disintegration” – the fragmentation, fracturing, and despair of the persona’s parts turned against one another by conflicting demands and competing epistemologies, by pressures to accept the unreal over the known, to exalt experience to the place of objectivity, to substitute terror and inhibition for freedom.
In fact, the sick don’t even know what freedom is anymore – the word sounds like a misty ideal. The experience of it is as alien as courage, by which likewise, we mean fearlessness, not merely momentary bravery. See how even our virtues are compromises, coopted, and redefined by corporate existence? Made fluffy and hollow and glazed over like a doughnut in the break room on Friday.
Disintegration is the result of the disease, but work is not the virus that causes it. It is rather a particular kind of work culture. In fact, work is the cure. The work of one’s life. Real work. The work that gives life not just to the body, when someone hands you a wad of cash, but the work that feeds the whole person, that defines their relationship with the world. Work should be the therapy, not the disease, the healing force in our lives, not the devastating one that leaves us frail and shaking like bed-ridden invalids.
If you haven’t experienced both kinds of work, then you are either enormously blessed or enormously tragic. Some of us have known both. There is hope, there is meaning for us. It is more often difficult to see, because of what our work has made of us, than it is impossible to obtain. The goal, in my experience, is always to see – and liberation follows. If you can articulate the problem – if you can define your enemy – you can overcome. It may be at great cost, but it will be to lasting reward, as well. In my experience, it’s so worth it. It’s not even a question.
The hardest thing is when you don’t see any other options. I could say that you have to create them, but it would just sound like a platitude, and we get enough of those on posters, don’t we? All I can tell you that may be of value, if you feel trapped, is that you can begin thinking through it. Thinking is a kind of light. I think, though I cannot promise, that if you respond to the light you are given, you will receive more light. If nothing else, light is its own reward. I contemplated the world outside the cage long before I set foot in it. It was just a dream, almost an unreality. And now, I will never be caged. But that’s me. Your situation may pose more hurdles. Still, you are a human being, worthy of liberation and dignity, if you will make yourself a person of integrity and decency. Don’t give up – not ever. Standing taller, a little at a time, within yourself, is too its own reward. All I can say is that I think it ultimately is the right road, and the way of darkness is letting others and circumstances define all that there is to you, which is really what these sicknesses are about. We all like to deny it, but we either bleed ourselves away a little every day, or we find ways to heal our wounds.
We’re going forward, you and I. I’ll see you at the end.