I was talking to a man in the store yesterday about self-esteem. Well, actually, we were talking about appliances (those things I sell) which led to a purchase (the purpose of my workday) and the inevitable letdown, “but I can’t deliver this for two weeks.” He understood, but as a long-time customer he wondered how come, since we used to be able to get everything delivered the same day or next.
The answer to that question is complex. It has to do with large projects we’re doing right now that are beyond our usual scope, an absolute torrid run of appliance sales during this economic boom, and the fact that it’s still hard to find quality help right now.
But, to simplify things, I just said “short-staffed.”
That was good enough for him. He’s a nice, older gentleman with a good head on his shoulders who sprinkles his conversations with musings about when he was young. And every time he talks about the past, he seems amazed at the passage of time (“that was, geez, 30 years ago now…”). He’s in his 70s and he finds it hard to believe he’s in his 70s. But cognitively he seems just fine, like a lot of folks in their 70s and 80s who show their age but are still quick of wit and can run a country or whatnot.
It started him talking about the homeless, though, which he still seems surprised about. “Never used to be that way,” he says a lot. I know what he means. When I was younger – geez, 30 years ago – it seemed like you knew all the homeless people in town by name. I know that wasn’t true then any more than it is now, but it just seemed that way. Probably because we weren’t paying as much attention. There are a lot more now but there were a lot then, too.
Homelessness led this man to talk about crime, in which he had some mighty extreme views. Put in a sound alarm, he said, “fuck those cameras and motion lights.” Criminals know, at 4 am, you’re not watching your monitors, so they’ll rob you either way. “But a good siren alarm? That’ll scare ‘em right out of the neighborhood.”
Do animals set them off at 3 am sometimes, I asked? Sure, he said. But that’s a small price to pay.
Eventually he made his way to the most extreme countermeasures for crime. “Back when I was young – geez, 40 maybe 50 years ago – the sheriff and his deputies used to beat the hell out of anyone who stepped out of line.” He missed that. The sheriff would even warn the person they were beating up that the perpetrator might not survive the next beating. Nobody dared commit a crime in Redding back then.
He then told me of a time, maybe 20 years ago, when he took a writing class and wanted to do screen plays. A novelist he met in class told him about the country she was from, I can’t remember if he said which one, where theft was met with dismemberment. Nobody dared to steal. “We have to be tough on crime like that if we want to stop it.”
We circled back around to the low work pool evident in the United States today. He told me of a statistic he once read: fully 90% of people who quit working for more than a year never go back to work. I can’t say if that’s a true statistic, I doubt it, but he believed it wholeheartedly and gave me several examples that he’d seen with his own eyes over the years. He even had a theory about it, having nearly experienced it himself (about 9 months unemployed once):
“You lose your self-esteem.”
He theorized that leaving the work life too long begins to fill you with doubt about your own competence. The longer you’re away the more you convince yourself you can’t do a job you knew you could do just a year before. I don’t know if I believe it – I don’t favor notions of universal human behavior – but his theory and level of belief in it intrigued me.
So much so that in the thick of the night, about the time his home alarm system was likely blaring at a deer, I thought about that part of the conversation the most. My own self-esteem is pretty strong; I dare say I could write a book on it. In fact, when I started my self-improvement kick, years ago, that was the first trait I felt lacking and worked hardest to fix. It always ranks first or second in my “list of values.”
But it occurred to me my self-esteem has slipped of late. Oh, it happens, don’t panic. None of us are 100% all of the time, especially those who think they are. I have days when I’m really confident and days when I’m not. Days when I love all of humanity and days when I don’t. Days I’m kinda funny and days I’m probably not.
So, I asked myself, at 3 am this morning, what is affecting my self-esteem right now? By all accounts this has been a good year. The Rams are world champions. I won both of my fantasy leagues. I beat Covid. My family is healthy. My dogs are, too. Joe is outperforming expectations. The store is rocking, and I had my best personal income month of all time this March. Mrs C kept her job during the takeover despite all rumors to the contrary. The perfect black SUV for the dogs pulled up across the street a few weeks ago and I bought it. I live a charmed life.
“Why, then?” I asked again.
For the last couple of months I’ve been pulling sixes on the job. I don’t really mind, there’s a very good reason for it, and I’m going to continue to do it for another month or so. But, I can’t get to the things in the yard I like to do. I can’t get to the things in the garage. The office is covered in dust. I haven’t run through a car wash in a dog’s age. When I can’t reconcile the usual maintenance of my life, when things are out of place around me, when I can’t get to my strange therapy, it affects my esteem.
The man may have been on to something. Working too little might indeed affect our personal confidence. I don’t know; I can’t remember ever trying that. But I can tell you this, for a fact: working too much can most assuredly strain the mojo.
My mojo is strained.
I don’t know if we should go around lopping off hands and beating up criminals. I don’t know how to solve the homeless problem. I don’t think I’ll buy a screaming horn for the alarm. I like my neighbors too much for that. I hope I don’t sit around when I’m older talking about the glory days, but I probably will.
The only thing I can tell you for certain, after all these words, is that working too much can harm the psyche. Maybe that’s why things are the way they are. If the old man is right, and I know that I am, then maybe, just maybe people aren’t coming back to work because they figured it out. We’re out of balance.
Until we get better at that, at balance, the problems will grow for … geez … years to come.