“That must be so rewarding,” she said in response to my description of what I do for a living, her face reflecting both a glimmer of genuine interest and an absence of common ground within which to ask follow-up questions. Although I’ve heard that line a billion times, it always prompts an involuntary defensive shudder, partly because it often feels just a tad patronising and partly because it taps into a whole heap of niggley inner angst. My outward verbal reaction tends to depend on the person, the context and my energy levels, and ranges from a neutral silent smile to a question about how they define rewarding.
I really need a better come-back to that comment because I can tell you now that it many ways my job is not rewarding in the slightest, not financially at least. Over the past few weeks as I’ve been house hunting (to rent not buy, before you ask), I’ve realised again quite how little I earn. The general rule of thumb that you shouldn’t spend more than a third of your income on rent is impossible to live by when you feel ‘called’, if you like, in equal measure to a particular community where housing isn’t cheap and to a type of work which doesn’t exactly pay shed loads.
It’s only been recently that this lack of financial reward has started to freak me out. (Hence the blog post; my usual way of confessing and processing my issues). Probably a combination of getting older, a surprise relocation back to London where I struggle to establish myself as an outsider among known, settled (and often coupled) others, where friends own property and seem to have followed logical career paths with pay scales, secure funding, bonuses, and possibilities of promotion. My own circumstances, outworking themselves in this current economic climate, have opened up an unexpected chink in my armour through which anxiety about tomorrow and jealousy of others’ perceived securities have come seeping in.
Have I made unwise choices en route? No, I don’t think so. It’s taken a while to work out where I’m going, but I think each leg of the journey played an essential part in getting me to where I am now. And that is, by and large, a good place to be. Nevertheless, as much as I love and thrive within the voluntary sector, it’s just so strapped for cash and, in spite of calls for different approaches towards income generation and investment in growth, change doesn’t seem forthcoming and this work holds out little promise of financial security. What is, at one level, hilarious, is also deeply depressing.
But, you know what, although it’d be nice to earn more, it still surprises me that I actually get paid anything to do something I love. That, however, is where my second issue with the ‘that must be so rewarding’ comment comes into play. It generally implies that what my line of work lacks in monetary benefit must somehow be compensated by a warm fuzzy feeling that makes it all worthwhile.
And to an extent that’s true. Just yesterday, I was telling my friends’ 10 year-old how much I loved my job and she said that was good because a lot of people she’d asked didn’t seem happy in what they were doing. (I don’t know which was more depressing: her observation about that miserable reality or my overwhelming desire to burst her bubble and tell her to pursue financial stability over job satisfaction and to aspire to a decent job in the private sector. Don’t end up like me! I wanted to shout.)
Anyway, I’m grateful for work that I love and the reality of job satisfaction. Seriously. And, yes, I get to meet amazing, resilient people, feed into processes of change, witness the realisation of hope and, dare I say it, ‘make a difference’. But not all the time. In fact, sometimes there simply is no warm fuzzy feeling. It’s blooming hard and depressing when you encounter injustice, destitution, trauma and hopelessness, and when the system is so grim that with the best will in the world you still can’t make insurmountable barriers surmountable.
And sometimes I’m just tired and grouchy and forget where I put my happy face. I get fed up with doing everything on a shoe-string, with trying to pursue a long-term vision on short-term funding, and with relying on computers that may or may not turn on in the morning. I get bored of the nitty gritty of record-keeping and phone calls when my mind is overleaping itself to imagine new and exciting possibilities of how things could be. For all the inspiring soundbites, there are times when I don’t even want to work with teenagers anymore because they can be so unreliable and chaotic. Sometimes I feel emotionally manipulated, weary of advocating other realities, drained by the political rhetoric on all sides and low on compassion.
But when you’re in a job that’s blatantly not for the money, there’s so much pressure to experience permanent joy as a substitute return on your investment of time and energy. Am I allowed to confess that I have bad days? Does that let the side down? More importantly, if it neither pays well nor feels good, what on earth am I doing it for? How do I respond to my tiredness and insecurities? Keep calm and carry on, as that ubiquitous and irritating mantra would tell me? Jump ship (to what, anyway?)? Deep breath. Remind me why I’m here, please.
In an effort to realign my heart and mind and get back on track, I revisit my motivations and the concept of reward which I find so problematic. In doing so, I recognise the fact that work can be satisfying and rewarding in and of itself and I’m deeply thankful for a) having a job in the first place when so many don’t, and b) having a job which enables me, in an ideal way for my personality and skill set, to follow in the footsteps of one who proclaimed good news and freedom. Yet the reward for walking this path is so often hard-won and deferred. By faith not by sight, right? I’m banking on a different economy and stockpiling another kind of treasure. There will be days when I feel like it’s not worth it and yet it’s not in vain and I can be certain that my action-inducing confidence in an alternative kingdom will ultimately be rewarded. It doesn’t matter what other people think of me; it’s God who rewards and, more profoundly, is the reward in himself. For now, I press on towards the prize, trusting in the one who promises to provide and who hasn’t let me down yet. Amen. Whoop. Preach it, girl. (Do I hear a hallelujah? Even a faint one?)
As ever, thudding back to earth, it’s just working that out in practice and letting truth be true in reality, even when I’m having a wobble and feel like I’ve gone out on a limb which is about to snap. Sigh. That’s why my response to a simple comment like ‘that must be so rewarding’ is always so fraught with tension. Yes, in many ways, it is rewarding, but how do I really believe and articulate that in a way which neither sounds over-spiritualised nor denies the associated challenges of the work I’ve chosen; both the daily practical/financial/lifestyle challenges and the inner ones of envy and fear which those external ones induce. How do I avoid buying into the other extreme which says more pain equals more gain and which engenders some new incarnation of pharisaical masochism where lack of rest, long hours, penny-pinching and burnout are seen as proof of righteousness; where what I do becomes, in an unhealthy way, who I am.
That must be so rewarding? Must it? Riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise? Give me strength.