On Work as Community

For the second night in a row I found my dreams haunted by the job I was dismissed from a little over two weeks ago.  In last night’s dream my company wasn’t just a company.  It was a city populated by thousands and I found myself an exile forced to walk in the desert and look longingly on from a distance.  I was cut-off and isolated not only from the company and the people I’d known there but also from the rest of mankind.  The company, apparently, represented the entirety of society.  This honestly isn’t a bad analogy for the way I feel at the moment and it takes a bit of probing in my psyche to determine exactly why.

I’m a person who tends to keep people in one of three circles.  There are a few people, numbering less than a half dozen that I consider the ‘inner circle’.  These are the people for whom you not only do anything but do it without thinking about it and realize only later that you’ve done something important.  And when you do have that realization you don’t even think about it because it was second nature.  The second circle is people with whom you aren’t as intimate but that you might actively seek out for conversation; the ones that you’ve invited out countless times to do something after work but they never seem to have time.  To the third belong all the people that you crack jokes with in the hallway in passing or talk to only in meetings.  You know them well and you may like them but for whatever reason the interaction just hasn’t gone social.

As I sit here on a Saturday morning I realize just what my dismissal has done to my social hierarchy.  When Laura came home last night she noted that I was just a machine of chatter.  Cracking silly jokes and babbling on endlessly and this is at least in part because I just have so much of it pent up.  The third circle that used to suffer through my witticisms and conversation is utterly gone.  This need to babble, I suspect, explains the tendency of many retirees to strike up random conversations with strangers.  They’ve lost their own third circle and the conversation just has to go somewhere.

In addition to losing the third circle, this has an impact on the second circle as well.  Work was a great place for the second circle to congregate.  If you put a few people together from this group it typically results in a great interaction.  Now, without the common bond of a workplace, the second circlers have nowhere to come together (well, they come together, it’s just without me and it’s behind the locked fortress walls of the workplace) and the dynamic is changed.  I was always mystified at the phenomenon of the high school reunion.  Why would anyone want to get together with a bunch of random people from 20 years ago?  I see now that it’s an attempt to reform the second circle of days gone by.

Starting out I was jotting down some notes for this missive and thought initially that this sense of loss was probably an indication that my life was too work-centered.  Having babbled on for 550 words though I’m not so sure that’s the case.  I think this may just be the natural order of things and that I’m just feeling this loss more acutely because I’ve been stationed in one place for so long.

Yes, the third circle is gone, but those are easily enough reformed.  The cohesiveness of the second circle is shattered forever, but another can be built.  Those people in the second circle with whom I have sufficient things in common will persist, perhaps to enter the first circle or perhaps to perpetually float on the fringes.  Either way, this is the nature of things.  Life is not a stockpiling of relationships but rather a dance.  Today’s close and favored dance partner is tomorrow’s distant memory.  One must revel in the moment and enjoy what is and hope that eventually the dreams will stop waking us at 7am on a Saturday morning.

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35 Comments

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35 responses to “On Work as Community

  1. Describing your relationships as circles is inspired. Sometimes revelling in the moment is harder than it sounds but just your words have been a revel.. For this moment. When i left my country i lost all three circles so i KNOW about the babble when you finally see someone close enough to babble to. And working for myself at home all day has ENabled an entirely different set of circles to wander about my brain.. thank you for an excellent essay.. I hope things go well for you.. c

  2. Shit! You should have sent me an email or something! At some point in the past week or two I actually started going through the job board app with you in mind, but got distracted and didn’t get back to it. Honestly the reason you haven’t seen any of these from me yet is that I’ve been working through some mixed feelings about the current state of my own company. I was asking myself if you’d be better off where you were with all the history you had there… but I guess that’s not a consideration now. Fwiw I think just yesterday I finally worked through my own stuff to a positive conclusion.

    The notion of circles is a great insight. Of late I’ve had some difficulty getting people from the third into the second… And yeah, I know exactly what it’s like to be cut off from most of your second circle that way. Twice now. Yeah, it sucks man.

    • yeah, after getting detached it was a bit of a whirlwind of panicked attempts to get a job SOMEWHERE. that’s officially all taken care of now so no worries but it was a worrisome 7 days let me tell ya. :) I’m glad you’ve worked out your own work situation at least.

      As for the circles… yes, it’s the conversions that are the hardest part. you may see someone that you think would be great for a “promotion” but finding that accord with them is always difficult. Nothing worse than trying to promote someone only to find that they look at you differently than you look at them!

  3. “Life is not a stockpiling of relationships but rather a dance. Today’s close and favored dance partner is tomorrow’s distant memory.”
    Wow.. Super lines.. What an expression..

  4. Pat

    Those circles are links in chains, not complete lumps of solid steel. Some of those links will stick and they will be the important ones.
    You will hate me for the next bit, but …
    What seems like a terrible loss now will turn out to be a relief. Many of those we have in our circles are nothing more than habits, people we collect and hold on to for no other reason that the circle. When they go or we release them, there is a hole, but it is tiny, easily filled, if that’s what you want.
    True friends are more important than any amount of habits.
    Don’t panic. In six months from now, you will have forgotten how terrible it was.
    And I wish you well in your new job.

    • Hate you? Hardly. It’s a good point but not something one wants to advertise or admit in the here and now. :)

      Thanks for stopping and thanks for your encouragement!

  5. Pingback: On Work as Community « The Adventures of Mrs Nobody

  6. I feel like everyone in my life sits in the third circle, maybe a couple in the second circle but since I moved two years ago, they’re too far away to socialise with any more. Sorry, that sounded sad and whiney…let’s just say, I get it.

    On the subject of your dreams – if I’m stressed about my career, I dream about buildings so the picture and opening paragraph of your post really spoke to me. The size and condition of the building usually represents the size and condition of the organisation I’m working in at the time. When I was working in State government and felt that I had lost control of my career, I had a recurring dream about being in a skyscraper elevator. I couldn’t control the elevator, I couldn’t get off and, in one dream, the lift car actually flew sideways out of the building! The subconscious is an amazing thing!

    Hope you find your way back to civilisation soon.

  7. This is such a wise post! I have been working alone at home since losing my staff job in June 2006. I write for a living and spend entire days completely alone. It’s crazy-making! So I go to the gym…and relate to a machine. Yesterday morning I met a friend in my town for breakfast; she, too, works alone at home. I’ve taken to starting my day at our local coffee shop, because the price of my $6 muffin and cappuccino is the pleasure of running into friends there.

    Work is very much a community and I still miss friends I made in one newsroom back in the mid 1980s. Ats its very rare best, a workplace pulls together congenial people with similar skills and values. How could you not miss that?

  8. Hi Rob,
    I really enjoyed your post. I’d forgotten about the circles thing and shouldn’t have. I am currently in the situation where my inner circle is mixing with some toxic people so having to really think about how to negotiate that.
    I recently published a post called “Battery People”. I have friends with free range chooks and it dawned on me that so many people end up caged in the workplace. I’ve ended up working part-time due to poor health & kid commitments and that’s given me a different perspective on work.
    I am currently working on a post about the love of a stranger, which sort of blows the whole inner circle model out of the water a bit.
    I would love you to check out my blog. You can see I’ve been home alone today. I’m talking underwater again.

    • Thanks! You make an interesting point… I’d thought of the inner circle as rather impenetrable but it’s worth noting that those things can get invaded from outside. That’s very unfortunate.

  9. aha this is brilliant. i can definitely relate to your circles. then i have a fourth circle of people that avoid making eye contact with because i hate talking to them so much.

    i do know what you mean about pent up talking energy..i live alone now (i used to live with 4 roommates)..and i find i’m much more chatty during my day because i spend some much time in silence (or talking to myself under my breath like a crazy person) at home.

  10. Hi Rob,
    My partner was not working for quite a while and I think the not-being-part of a physical community had quite an impact on her… and us. I always think it’s amazing how there are so many ‘places’ similar people can be in life. anyway, i really liked reading your post today so thanks for that!
    -wen-

  11. Allow yourself to breathe, explore your deepest inner thoughts, and at some point (if you’re too young or not able to retire), decide if you want to return to the life you just left. Perhaps, a new direction. But you’re right, long after the work is forgotten, the relationships linger. Good luck, and keep expressing!

    • Sadly, I can’t retire yet but I think that ultimately I’ll never be able to return to the “place” I left. It was fundamentally disfunctional. Need to write a blog entry about some of the external evidence of this but yeah… new life looms.

  12. Halo Halo Designs

    Great post, and I hope you meet new and awesome people to fill that void in your circle :) I usually work by myself or with 1 other person, so there really isn’t any sense of community within my workplace. The very few in my inner circle are miles away from me and my second and third circles are pretty much non-existent at this point, so I can really relate to what you’re saying. Congratulations on being freshly pressed and good luck to you! :)

  13. It’s refreshing and encouraging how elegantly you expressed your loss of work and community. Nice work, thank you for sharing.

  14. I’m coming at you from freshly pressed. Thank you for writing such an honest post. I hope you have a good night’s sleep tonight. It’s funny how much of our worth we place on our jobs. At the end of 2010 I resigned from a place I’d worked for 20 years. I took 14 months off before I looked for more work because I needed to find myself again, who I am that transcends any job description. I’m glad I took that time and I hope you can afford to take as much time as you need. Congratulations on being freshly pressed. :)

    • thanks, Diana. 20 years, wow. Good to know that I’m not the only one who stays put for a while. I have supreme confidence in what the new day will bring. so thanks for the encouragement!

  15. Hi Rob

    I couldn’t agree more with your definition of circles, and I have found the second circle the most delicate and vaguest of all three. I’m relatively new in my current workplace (having started year and half ago), initially holding a belief that I could easily build a sizable second circle, if I’m friendly, open-minded and willing to take the first step. What is the result, after a year and half, then? Well, there are a few people that I could count on to hang out for a beer after a hectic week in work, but more often I tasted the bitterness of (soft) rejection, that is: when I actively sought someone out for conversation, but it’s mainly me who did the talking, or felt like I have disturbed; or when I invited someone countless times out for drink but there was always somewhere else they had to be instead, plus they never invited you back! That’s when I started to wonder if I was acting like a pain in the neck and should just leave this second circle blank altogether. Then it’s a sad truth that the people that you spent most of your life with are not close to you at all – they are all in the third circle!

    I wish someone could object my opinion strongly so I could be encouraged to keep trying despite the rejections or humiliation it could bring. But looking around, my colleagues seem to be content with this polite but distant relationship.

    Sorry to sound disheartening. I feel so connected with your post so maybe you will understand my feeling.

    • Well, not disheartening really so much as encouraging. Somewhere in something I wrote a long time ago there’s an account of my first couple of years at my old place of employment. I was not the most gregarious of employees and I was the only non-remote employee in the department. I got stuck in a corner and I counted off the days on the calendar that I spoke to literally NOBODY in the company. It was… well, rather maddening. Take heart, I suppose, in the knowledge that you’re not the only one with the problem. Heck, if you have a ‘few people’ that you can count on then consider yourself lucky. Work can very easily be a complete desert. We’ll see next week I suppose if that happens to me. :)

  16. Great piece. Work is indeed a community. We spend significant time with people on the job. Relationships organically form thru communication, laughter, and shared stories. It was great to see your series of circles.

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