19 May 2009

Save Me From Changing

This is the time in the semester when students want to hand in assignments that were due months ago--and to go over those assignments line-by-line with them. And they want more time to rewrite the assignment.

Well, OK. I just had one of those students now. Her excuse was that she was going to turn in the paper yesterday, but she had a doctor's appointment. She never asked me for an extension--until now. And I made it quite clear to her, and the rest of the class, that the deadline was last Wednesday.

And then she'll complain to the department chair, the dean or anyone else who will listen.

As if I'm not under enough pressure now. Evangelists are supposed to save people's souls. People like the student I mentioned think that my job is to save her ass.

And then I come home and call Mom and Dad. Dad answers and gives me, practically verbatim, the same monologue he gave me the other day. He knows what he needs to do, but he doesn't have the will to do it. I can give love, and maybe not a whole lot else. Certainly, I can't give someone the desire to be the kind of husband and father that he now laments not having been.

Perhaps I seem callous. But I've listened to him, even empathised with him--I spent lots of time depressed, too.--but he says he has no interest in anything, not even sex or food. He knows he needs to eat, and that getting laid probably wouldn't be a half-bad idea for him, either. He also knows he needs to shower, shave, get dressed and get out of the house--for any reason at all, really.

When I told him that I have days when I don't want to leave the house and face all of the people at work, he said, "Well, it's your job. You have to do it." True enough. But, I explained, the teaching, advising, mentoring and other ways in which I interact with people--as much as I like doing those things, most of the time--aren't just the way I make my living. They're a job in the real sense: They're a purpose, one of my purposes. The only other thing about which I feel the same way is my writing. They are my raisons d' etre.

That, I explained, is what he really needs. He needs to create a purpose, a job, for himself. There are people who've lost their jobs, yet still wake up in the morning, shower, shave, dress and go to the train station. From there, they might actually take the train downtown to look for work. Or they might go to a cafe or some other place where other people like them congregate to encourage each other, compare resumes and such.

He could make his job something as basic as keeping up the yard or some part of the house. His old job isn't coming back, ever. Even if it were to return, my father probably wouldn't be hired for it; He is too old, in the eyes of those who are hiring. But he still has a lot to contribute, to himself and members of his family. And it isn't monetary.

But he needs a job. That is the way he identifies with, and values, himself. He needs a purpose, whatever it is. For the first time, I am understanding that a person's purpose changes over time. Back in the days when people died of things today's paramedics treat every day, perhaps they didn't have to change purpose: There was only survival, and most people grew their own crops and slaughtered the animals they ate. And they got married at 14 or 15 and had ten kids, four of whom might live long enough to become bearers of children themselves. When life is brutish, nasty and short, your only real job is to survive, and to ensure the survival of your family and race.

Now people like my father live much longer. Their jobs, or the instutions for or in which they performed them, become obsolete and and disappear. Their children move away and move on.

The scenario I've just described can happen to anyone. I can already see how some of my own jobs, my own purposes, have changed over the past few years. And I suspect that they will change again, however incrementally, after my surgery--which I hope to be ready for, and to do this July 7.

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