Wednesday 29 November 2023

One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
— Albert Camus

TW: Mention of suicide

A few weeks ago I completed thirty years’ continuous service at work. As l described at the time, “[t]he experience left me feeling demotivated. Demoralised. More than anything else, I felt sad. Thirty years working for essentially the same employer — and in essentially the same role — doesn’t feel much of an achievement to me. It feels like what happens when you never pushed yourself to find something better.” I used the word “pushed” in that final sentence without giving it much thought. It’s acquired greater significance in the period since, as I’ve pondered some of the questions my three decades of service brought up. Questions like what is my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Is this all there is?

As age-old and ultimately unanswerable they may be, these are questions worthy of investigation. Last year I came across a series of video lectures by philosophy professor Jeffrey Kaplan. I was especially interested in those dealing with logical paradoxes, and matters of ethics. (I highly recommend Kaplan’s lecture on Peter Singer, Ordinary People Are Evil.) I began reading — or rather, listening and watching — more widely. Nihilism intrigued me, but felt too austere. Somewhere in my philosophical travels I came across Albert Camus and Absurdism. I moved on without fully engaging with either the man or his ideas, but the seed had been sown. I chanced on him again a few weeks ago, and something clicked into place. I’ve been exploring his writing and work in some detail since then.

I can’t give more than a superficial account of Camus and his ideas, but I’ll do my best to describe what I’ve learned and why I find his thinking so engaging. I’ve included links at the end of this piece for anyone who wants to find out more.

The Nature of the Absurd

We have an innate need to find meaning and value in our lives, but according to Camus, the search is futile because the universe itself is purposeless, meaningless, irrational, and utterly indifferent to our existence. Camus describes this as the paradox of the Absurd. I found a modern expression of this idea in a quotation by Richard Dawkins, from his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

This resonates. The idea of a non-human meaning or purpose to the universe has never made sense to me. It simple is and it’s for us to ascribe a meaning to it if we wish. That doesn’t mean I always find it easy. I’ve never been suicidal, but I often feel unfulfilled and adrift. The following is drawn more or less at random from my personal journal.

Feeling flat. Not wanting to do anything special or different. What’s the point, really? What difference does it make what I do today?

I’m hardly unique in this. I talk regularly with people who share thoughts and feelings like these. Some border on hopelessness, despair, and suicidality. Some are the product of, or exacerbated by, anxiety, depression, trauma, or other conditions and life events. Camus’ assertion that there’s no ultimate meaning might appear unhelpful or even dangerous. To me, though, the logic of Absurdism is reassuring, even comforting. It assures me that these thoughts and feelings are neither wrong nor pathological. They’re the natural consequence of the situation in which we find ourselves. Camus describes three ways of responding to this existential challenge: philosophical suicide (faith or belief), physical suicide, and acceptance.


Not everyone agrees that the universe is chaotic and devoid of meaning, of course. I have friends who would count themselves as religious, spiritual, or both, and draw strength and purpose from their faith. I respect this as I respect them, but I’ve never felt my needs would be satisfied by adherence to any doctrinal system. I went to church in my teens, but since leaving home at eighteen I’ve only attended for weddings and funerals. The last occasion was my mother’s funeral in 2018. My father, at least occasionally, yearned to share my mother’s Christian faith, but it wasn’t in him and I respect him for that. The following is from an open letter I wrote to my father, many years after he died.

I know you didn’t share Mum’s religiosity. Her churchgoing. Her faith. I recall one conversation between you. You telling her you wished you could believe. It’s the one time you let the mask slip. The one time I remember seeing you cry.

In the end, my mother’s faith turned against her, twisted by doubt and mental illness into crippling guilt and despair from which she never recovered. For Camus, faith amounted to philosophical suicide. He saw it as an attempt to escape the dilemma by devoting oneself to a religion, cause, or movement that claims to provide the structure and meaning we seek. This seemed to him intellectually dishonest. I wish I had half the courage, wit, and erudition of such modern atheists as the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Fry, but I can use the voice and platform I have, and share what the Absurd means to me. In doing so, I’m discovering more about myself, my life, and my purpose. That feels important.

It’s worth saying that not all existentialists considered religion an invalid response to the crisis of meaninglessness. That includes Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, generally considered the first existentialist philosopher. Camus repudiated the label of existentialist, but is generally counted amongst their number.


The question of suicide is foundational for Camus. In the opening chapter of his book The Myth of Sisyphus, he declares “[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” I find something brutally refreshing in this. I’ve had many conversations with Fran and other friends about suicide and suicidal thinking. I’ve taken suicide awareness and prevention courses. Fran and I have a chapter on suicidality in our book. But I’ve never looked at suicide from a philosophical perspective before .

There was a time when I could discern a certain romantic tragedy in suicide born of extreme suffering. I remember being moved reading of the death by suicide of the English painter Dora Carrington in 1932 following the loss of her beloved friend Lytton Strachey. The final entry in her journal included the following couplet from Henry Wotton’s poem “Upon the Death of Sir Albert Morton’s Wife.”

He first deceased; she for a little tried | To live without him, liked it not, and died.

With hindsight and greater understanding, I focus much more on the loss her death represented for the people who loved her, yet were unable to help her survive the despair in which she found herself.

To be clear, Camus explicitly rejects the idea of taking one’s life as a legitimate response to the crisis of meaninglessness. He sees it as avoiding the paradox by taking oneself out of life altogether, rather than finding a solution to it. This counters any romanticisation of suicide, but there remains a danger in taking Camus’ views at face value. It would be easy to conclude that suicide is in some way cowardly or selfish; an easy way out for those unable or unwilling to challenge the Absurd in other ways. I don’t see it that way at all. I’ve read that for those bereaved by suicide no response or feelings are invalid, but I can’t agree with those who judge the actions of those they’ve lost as weak or selfish. I once told Fran that if she ever chose to leave, I would not hate her for it. That hasn’t changed.

Camus speaks about a certain kind of suicidality, but suicidal thinking, and suicide itself, are too deep, desperate, and messy to be fully explained or countered by any single philosophical theory. That said, I believe a wider awareness and understanding of philosophy would help address the loneliness and alienation many of us feel, especially when we’re unable or unwilling to subscribe to consensus views and attitudes. The breadth and variety of philosophical thought teaches us — teaches me — that there’s no one route to truth, and no single way of living genuinely. I find that profoundly validating. We’re not wrong or bad for thinking differently, seeing the world through our own eyes, or seeking meaning in ways that work for us.

Sisyphus and the Absurd Man

I mentioned Sisyphus earlier but who is he and what’s his relevance to Camus’ thinking? Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra (Corinth) in Greek mythology. As I expressed it recently to a friend, he was punished by the gods for being “a bit cheeky” — which is something of an understatement. His full story is worth reading, but it’s the nature of his final punishment that’s relevant here. In Camus’ words:

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.

It’s not hard to see this as an analogy for the repetitive, tedious, and seemingly endless drudgery of modern life. It’s captured perfectly in a meme which began as a post on Twitter/X by Kramski.

I love how being an adult is just saying “But after this week things will slow down a bit again” to yourself until you die.

Sisyphus is the model for what Camus calls the Absurd Man; someone who exemplifies the appropriate response to the paradox of meaninglessness. The following summary is is taken from The Absurd Man by James Clark Ross.

The absurd man lives for his passions. He exists here and now, hoping for no more than what he’s been given. Though he abandons meaning, he is determined to live in the present and takes this perspective forward with him over the course of his life.

Yet the absurd man revolts against his very existence. He sees death as finality: there is no place for God. Nor is there any other source of intrinsic value to justify his existence in this world, nor a way to have consequence in another. The absurd man is torn from his urge to find unity.

But the absurd man is at least able to face the absurdity of his life squarely; for he accepts his own obscurity. In so doing, in renouncing the various falsities of hope, the absurd man finds freedom.

I find much here that reflects how I’ve lived my life. It makes sense to me. But what does it mean in practice? How is the Absurd Man — the Absurd Person — supposed to live?

Acceptance: The Third Way

Having set physical and philosophical suicide aside, what does Camus offer as a way through the dilemma of the Absurd? In a word, acceptance. Acceptance of the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves, and the determination to nevertheless live fully, relying on our courage, inventiveness and spirit to find a personal sense of meaning and purpose. Camus gives three examples of the Absurd Man, which he labels the lover, the actor, and the warrior, but it’s up to us to figure things out for ourselves. I recommend the excellent twenty minute video 7 Life Lessons from Albert Camus on the Philosophies for Life YouTube channel. It describes seven approaches to help us appreciate the Absurdity of life.

  1. Create your own meaning for life
  2. Don’t make happiness a distant goal
  3. Don’t be ignorant
  4. Be a rebel
  5. Spend time with yourself
  6. Be flexible
  7. Choose love

These are all important and I encourage you to watch the video in full, but I’ll touch on four that seem especially relevant to me: creating your own meaning, being a rebel, spending time with yourself, and not making happiness a distant goal. The quoted sentences are from the video narration.

Create your own meaning for life

No one is watching you. You are absolutely free to choose how your life will be.

I’ve written elsewhere about how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate our successes, whether or not they fit society’s model of what achievement should look like, or what others expect of us. Camus invites us to make our own choices about what matters for us, because ultimately no one and nothing else can do that for us.

Be a rebel

It’s important to know yourself in order to know when to rebel.

This can be interpreted in different ways, but essentially it means having the courage to say no when we need to. It’s about not accepting prescribed or expected norms if they don’t sit well with us. This could be seen as a rejection of morality and a licence to do anything we want to with no regard to other people, but Camus stresses the importance of balancing the freedom of being who you are with a strong sense of justice for others. The challenge is to act authentically rather than merely following the accepted or easy way. This means understanding who we actually are.

Spend time with yourself

Solitude makes it possible for you to meditate on the absurdity of life.

Time to myself has always been an important part of my life, whether it’s taking myself for a walk, meditating, keeping up with my diary as I’ve done every day for almost fifty years, or sitting in coffee shops to write my weekly blog post. The value of taking even short opportunities for solitude can’t be overstated. It’s in these moments that we can be most truly ourselves and explore our relationship with the Absurd.

I also spend a lot of time listening to and watching YouTube videos. I’m fascinated with cosmology and mathematics, especially anything to do with the scale and origins of the universe, incomprehensively large numbers such as Graham’s number and Tree 3, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, Turing machines, and Russell’s paradox. Topics such as these speak to me of the urgent and fascinating, yet ultimately pointless urge to seek for understanding.

Don’t make happiness a distant goal

The more we can enjoy the process of achieving our goals, the happier we become.

Many people live and work towards future goals, setting aside any appreciation of the journey they are on in getting there. This may not cause any issues with relatively short-term goals. We can press on through the hardship and drudgery until we get there. For longer term goals and aspirations, however, we miss out on so much if we fail to appreciate where we are along the way. A need to be always pushing on towards the next goal means we are never happy with where we are or what we have achieved. We probably all know someone who never seems content with what they have, but is always looking for the next experience, relationship, or acquisition, believing that then they will be happy and at peace. The way out of this dilemma is to learn to find value in the journey, worrying less about what we our journeying towards.

There are no goals or aspirations for Sisyphus. He knows he is condemned to push his boulder up the hill for eternity. Likewise, it sometimes seems to us that there’s no possibility of escape or change in our future, and we’re going to be stuck where we are forever. If we allow ourselves to be lost in the seeming impossibility of change, we can lose hope altogether. If we imagine our life will only have meaning if it changes in specific desired ways, we will be mired in despair. The lesson we can take from Sisyphus — at least as Camus’ presents him — is to become fully aware of the present moment and find happiness there. Find meaning there. As he writes in the closing lines of The Myth of Sisyphus, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

So, to return to the beginning of this piece and my reflections on my life so far, I’ll keep pushing on. Like Sisyphus I’ll make the most of each step along the way, allowing the struggle to fill my heart. In doing so, I can imagine myself happy.

Further Information

Existential Psychology: Camus (Eric Dodson lectures)

Albert Camus (Life and works)

7 Life Lessons from Albert Camus (video)

The Myth of Sisyphus (video)

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (book)

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (audio book)

The Stranger (video) 1967 film by Italian film director Luchino Visconti, based on Albert Camus’ 1942 novel The Stranger.


Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash. Sculpture by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland in Frogner Park, Oslo.


Wednesday 22 November 2023

Writing the Foreword for My Friend's Book

Foreword /ˈfɔːwəːd/
Noun: a short introduction to a book, typically by a person other than the author.

Would you mind writing a foreword for me?

I was happy and proud earlier this year when my friend Aimee Wilson invited me to write the foreword for her new book You’re NOT Disordered: The Ultimate Wellbeing Guide for Bloggers. It was a great honour and responsibility, and something I took very seriously. I remember when Fran and I were looking for someone to write the foreword for our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. It was important to find someone we trusted, who also had relevant experience and standing. For Aimee to extend me that degree of trust meant a great deal, not least because I knew how important her writing in general — and this book in particular — was to her.

I’d reviewed Aimee’s previous book Everything Disordered: A Practical Guide to Blogging but this was different and I took care to do the very best job I could for my friend. As a blogger myself, I’m very conscious of the pressure and stresses it can involve. Some issues are more obvious than others, some problems are bigger than others, but there’s very little out there to guide you through such predicaments. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t another book on the market addressing blogging from a wellbeing perspective. That’s why You’re NOT Disordered is so important and valuable.

With more than ten years’ experience running a very successful blog, Aimee is ideally qualified to write on this subject. At the time of writing, her blog I’m NOT Disordered tops the Feedspot listing of UK Borderline Personality Disorder blogs. She’s collaborated with numerous charities, companies, and organisations. She’s also appeared on television and radio, and featured in newspaper articles and magazines. She’s drawn on all this experience and more in writing her new guide on wellbeing for fellow bloggers.

Aimee and I met in early 2016 at a volunteer event for UK mental health charity Time to Change. At that time Aimee had been blogging for three years, me a little less. Despite the fact that we both blog in the mental health arena, we approach even the same topics differently, reflecting our personal perspectives and life experience. What we do have in common are the many challenges which anyone who blogs will understand. Blogging can be a lonely pursuit, and it helps enormously to have someone who understands what we’re going through. Aimee’s helped me many times on all kinds of levels. Through her new book, she’s making that experience and wisdom available to others.

Fran and I were very fortunate to have best-selling author and mental health advocate Rachel Kelly write the foreword for our book. I hope Aimee is just as pleased with her choice! I enjoyed the opportunity immensely and wish her every success with You’re NOT Disordered: The Ultimate Wellbeing Guide for Bloggers. I’m certain I’ll use it a lot to help keep me on track.


You’re NOT Disordered: The Ultimate Wellbeing Guide for Bloggers is available from Amazon. You can follow Aimee Wilson on her blog I’m NOT Disordered and on Twitter/X (@aimes_wilson).

Photo by Aimee Wilson.

Originally published at I’m NOT Disordered.


Wednesday 15 November 2023

Big Boys Cry Too: Challenging Toxic Masculinity for International Men's Day

Be quiet, big boys don’t cry.

— Eric Stewart / Graham Gouldman. “I’m Not in Love.”

Observed each year on November 19, International Men’s Day (IMD) celebrates the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities. It highlights positive role models and raises awareness of men’s well-being, including mental health. It’s also an opportunity to face up to some of the less wholesome aspects of men’s lives and behaviour. For IMD 2022 I explored what being a man means to me. This year, I’m taking a look at toxic masculinity, which affects not only men but also our families, relationships, and wider society.

What Is Toxic Masculinity?

Let’s start with what toxic masculinity isn’t. It’s not an attack on men, men-shaming, blaming men for all the ills in the world, or denying the rich and varied contributions men make in all walks of life. It doesn’t claim that being male or masculine is toxic or unhealthy. Rather, it highlights some attitudes and behaviours conventionally associated with being a “real man” which are demonstrably hurtful and harmful. Here’s a definition by Mental Health UK.

Toxic masculinity is a term describing certain unhelpful assumptions about what it means to be “masculine” such as being stoic, not showing emotions, or being outwardly violent and “tough” versus being “soft” and emotional. These perceptions can be perpetuated by the media, which portrays men showing vulnerability as “weak” and something to be mocked.

Attitudes such as these have been passed down from generation to generation and remain deeply ingrained in gender expectations and stereotypes. We see them perpetuated by the media and social media, in movies and on television, and within social settings including our co-workers, families, and friends. They’re so commonplace that many people see them as completely normal and acceptable. When you hear “boys will be boys” as an excuse for aggressive or inappropriate behaviour, that’s toxic masculinity at work.

Toxic masculinity manifests in many different ways, including the repression of emotions, dominance, aggression, and inflexible ideas about what it means to be a man or boy. It serves as a foundation for mysogyny; inappropriate behaviour; and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. It underlies extremist ideologies including male supremacy and the incel (“involuntary celibate”) sub-culture.

In a less extreme but nonetheless harmful context, toxic masculinity asserts that it’s unmanly to express emotions, to cry, to show sadness, admit we’re feeling depressed or anxious, or demonstrate vulnerability in any way. My father lived with physical illness and pain all his adult life, but he kept his feelings and emotions close to his chest. I can only recall him crying once in my presence. As I wrote in an open letter to my father decades after he died: “You never let me see it’s okay to cry and be weak sometimes, and share how you’re feeling when life is really shitty. I have no idea how you felt about your life. Or your death.” That open letter was challenged by a friend who called out my use of “weak” in that context. She felt I was still perpetuating the idea that crying is a sign of weakness. Her challenge led me to explore the idea of weakness itself. I shared some of the healthy male role models I’ve known in my life in Being a Man: Exploring My Gender Identity.

There’s nothing wrong with competition, with striving to excel, or wanting to improve one’s standing. But the idea that we need to win at all costs, that losing means failure, and that failure is unacceptable, drives unhealthy competitiveness and a lack of compassion and understanding for others. The never-ending urge to succeed, to beat those around us, to push ourselves on relentlessly, can lead to problems in our relationships, and stress-related health issues.

The assertion that certain careers, jobs, or roles are specifically and uniquely masculine or “man-like” is as toxic as the idea that certain roles are specifically and only for women. Anyone not conforming to these roles and expectations, whether from choice or otherwise, faces significant push-back, and discrimination which can affect our sense of identity, self-esteem, and well-being.

What’s the Problem?

Having set out what toxic masculinity is (and isn’t) let’s explore it’s impact in more detail. Why does this matter?

It can be hard for men to talk about how we’re feeling or allow ourselves to be vulnerable in front of others when we’ve been raised on the idea that it’s unmanly to express and explore our emotions. Not everyone feels the need to share how they’re feeling all the time, but wanting to open up and feeling unable to do so is a different thing entirely. Bottling things up with no healthy means of release can manifest as anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Toxic masculinity discourages men from asking for help or using healthy coping strategies. In their absence, men may turn to less healthy options such as alcohol or drugs. Pent up stresses may also be released in violence, aggression, and other negative behaviours.

The impact of toxic masculinity can be far-reaching. The impulse to exemplify macho “real man” behaviours and roles can place enormous strain on relationships with colleagues, partners, and family. Addressing such interpersonal issues is hindered by a stifled emotional vocabulary. This isn’t to excuse unreasonable or toxic behaviour, but it’s hard to discuss things or address the consequences of our behaviour when we have little experience of talking maturely about our feelings, fears, and motivations.

At work and in the home, stereotypes that view men as dominant and women as submissive perpetuate and reinforce inequality, limit opportunities, and stifle the aspirations of all of us. This is especially insidious in the family, where fathers and other male figures may unconsciously pass unhealthy attitudes and behaviours to the next generation.

What Can We Do About It?

As deeply entrenched as some of these ideas are, there’s plenty we can do to challenge toxic masculinity and work towards a more tolerant, equal, and healthy society for all.

It’s vital that men are encouraged to speak, in public and privately, about their feelings, fears, motivations, and problems. There are signs this is starting to happen but there remains a great deal of societal pressure to “man up” and deal with things internally. There’s an important role for media, film, and television in modeling healthy behaviours, but it falls to each of us to encourage sharing without judgment or recrimination.

More generally, we need to move away from narrow concepts of what it means to be a man. People of all genders and none exhibit a wide spectrum of abilities, qualities, and natures. Allowing each other to be who we are without being forced into restrictive gender stereotypes, benefits everyone. Promoting a culture where we feel safe, whether we “fit the mould” or not, builds genuine and stronger relationships and connections. It’s something I’m proud to say happens in my workplace. This doesn’t happen overnight or automatically. That it does is testament to the willingness and determination of people at all levels in the organisation to foster a working environment where people feel able to be and express who they are.

Campaigns such as International Men’s Day and Movember promote mental health awareness for men and counter the idea that admitting we’re struggling or need support is unbecoming, weak, or “unmanly.” Being open about how we feel helps counter the stigma traditionally associated with mental illness and encourages men to seek professional help. Online and in person support groups and communities such as Andy’s Man Club, MANUP?, and Mantality provide safe spaces in which men can share their experiences and support one another.

Starting this International Men’s Day, let’s pledge to:

  • Model attitudes and behaviours that counter toxic gender stereotypes.
  • Examine our own attitudes and behaviours. It’s too easy to disown responsibility for perpetuating, consciously or otherwise, unhealthy stereotypes.
  • Challenge toxic masculinity whenever and wherever we encounter it, whether in person or online. Calling out ignorant, outdated, and inappropriate behaviour empowers others to do the same.
  • Help create a culture in our workplaces and other environments where people feel safe and confident discussing their emotions and mental health.
  • Support and signpost groups and organisations that promote men’s mental health and work to improve access to mental health services.

Toxic masculinity is deeply embedded in society and breaking free from it isn’t easy, on either a personal or collective level. That said, it’s a journey worth making because the rewards benefit us all.

Further Reading

For more on International Men’s Day check out the official IMD website, International Men’s Day UK, and the Men’s Health Forum. For more general resources and information regarding men’s mental health Mental Health UK is a great starting point.

We have a number of related blog posts here at Gum on My Shoe.

Our resources page includes links to a range of crisis lines, support organisations, training resources, and books.

Over to You

In this post I’ve described what toxic masculinity is and its impact on men, our relationships, families, and wider society. What are your thoughts about toxic masculinity? Has it affected you personally? Have you felt pressured to behave in certain ways because of gender stereotypes which don’t align with how you think and feel? Perhaps you believe too much is being made of it or that men are under attack. Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Tom Pumford at Unsplash.


Wednesday 8 November 2023

Getting a Living, Forgetting to Live: A Few Thoughts on My 30 Years Service

Men for the sake of getting a living forget to live. (Margaret Fuller)

A few weeks ago I was listening in to the regular “all colleague call” at work. I was caught totally by surprise when I heard my name called out, to recognise my having completed thirty years of service. The anniversary had completely escaped my notice. In that time, I’ve actually worked for at least five employers, as the agency or company that employed me was outsourced, renamed, bought out, or merged with another entity. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, this all counts as continuous service.

Many of my colleagues underwent the same transformation, depending on when they boarded the carousel. There aren’t too many, though, who’ve worked here as long as I have. Almost everyone I started out with has long since retired, left, or otherwise moved on. I follow a few of them on social media, but most were colleagues rather than friends and I’ve not sought to keep the connections alive. In passing, I count this as growth on my part. In the more distant past I’ve attempted to hold on to connections long beyond their sell-by date.

Listening to my three decade career being briefly summarised on the call felt ... strange. I wasn’t embarrassed at being, momentarily, the focus of attention. I don’t embarrass easily. That said, it would have been nice if all the details had been correct. I was reminded of the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. The minister misrepresented aspects not only of her life — perhaps in a deliberate spirit of generosity — but mine too. It wasn’t a huge deal then, and it wasn’t a huge deal on the work call either. But little things matter. Getting it right matters. It’s not that they didn’t care. The truth, in both scenarios, is that almost no one present knew me well enough to get the details right.

After the call, I accepted the congratulations and comradely teasing of my team mates. We get on well and I enjoy their company, but the experience left me feeling demotivated. Demoralised. More than anything else, I felt sad. Thirty years working for essentially the same employer — and in essentially the same role — doesn’t feel much of an achievement to me. It feels like what happens when you never pushed yourself to find something better.

It’s not that I feel old. I’m sixty-two and happy for anyone to know it. That said, those thirty years represent almost half of my life so far. What have I achieved? I’ve advanced one grade, from Executive Officer (EO) to Higher Executive Officer (HEO). I was a team leader for many years, but am now a team member again. I’m content enough and I’m not looking for advancement in what remains of my working career. As I described in a post about lifelong learning, accepting that I’m not a natural leader (and have no desire to become one) has been liberating. It points, nonetheless, to a singular lack of ambition.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m aware how fortunate I am to be in work at all. In those thirty years I’ve never felt my job was at risk. It’s been very stressful at times, but that’s less of an issue nowadays. I may gripe about my lack of progression and the fact there’s no chance of a pay rise in my remaining years here, but I’m paid well enough for what I do. There are many people who work far harder than I do in much more challenging environments for far less money. I’m thinking especially of the caring and support sectors, but there are many others. This was brought home to me — literally — during the pandemic. While so many lost their jobs, were unable to work for a time, or continued working under increasingly onerous and dangerous conditions, my job was safe and I could work from home.

Nor have I hated working here. Far from it. I have some great memories and have enjoyed good working relationships with almost everyone I’ve encountered. I can point to things I’ve done that added value and contributed greatly to the achievements of my team, the organisation, and the people we support. I know I’ve made a difference. I’m especially proud of helping establish the mental health team a few years ago and securing buy-in from our then chief exec and senior management team to apply for the Time to Change Employer Pledge Scheme. In truth it was an easy sell, but it meant a lot to have their support for what we wanted to do. Presenting our CEO with the certificate of attainment at a corporate event a year later was a moment I treasure.

If I’m grateful for my job, happy enough in it, and feel I’ve made — and continue to make — a meaningful contribution, what’s the problem? It comes down to feeling I’ve not made the most of my opportunities. American journalist, critic, and women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller asserted that “Men for the sake of getting a living forget to live.” That’s not exactly true in my case. I take my work seriously, but I’ve not focused on my career to the exclusion of everything else. Rather, I’ve taken the path of least resistance — the next easiest step — almost all my life, in work and generally. I’ve rarely followed my passion or my dreams, mostly because I’ve not known what I wanted. I envy people who have a clear sense of who they are and what they want to achieve. Mostly, I’ve settled for wanting what I had or seemed within easy reach.

A few years ago I enrolled in a series of mentoring sessions at work. I was delighted that my then chief exec agreed to be my mentor. We got on famously and I enjoyed our sessions, but they didn’t help me much. That’s no reflection on my mentor. She could hardly help me move towards my goals when I was incapable of identifying them. I know I disappointed her — and others — in that regard.

I’ve always been this way. I remember a similar period of uncertainty and disillusionment in the late 1980s when I lived and worked in London. I was part way through working towards my PhD and lost all motivation and direction. I applied for a wide range of jobs, including a Braille translator and art conservator, but ended up taking the easiest next step and remaining in academic research. It’s not that I necessarily regret the steps I’ve taken, but I’d feel better about them if I’d exercised a degree of agency occationally.

My life and career are far from over, of course. I’m sixty-two not ninety-two! That said, the end of my working career is approaching. I’ve no clear idea when would be best to retire, or what to do with afterwards. I could choose to leave any time, but that requires making a decision. It’s easier to just continue turning up. I imagine that’s what I’ll do for at least a few more years. Maybe I’ll get another shout-out at thirty-five years service, or when I finally leave. Will there still be anyone there who knows me? Not just the projects I’ve worked on but who I am.

These thirty years passed almost without me noticing. I doubt I’ll be graced with another thirty. Twenty, maybe. What do I want to achieve? How do I want to live? I’m reminded of an excerpt from the British television sitcom Fawlty Towers in which the inept hotel manager Basil Fawlty experiences a rare moment of insight.

[Talking to himself] Zhoooom! What was that?
That was your life, mate.
Oh, that was quick. Do I get another?
Sorry, mate. That’s your lot.

One day, it won’t be a workplace shout-out on a Teams call, but my final eulogy. What will they say about me at my funeral, and will they get it right? What would I like them to say? These are questions for another day, but at least — at last — I’m asking them.


Photo by Martin Reisch at Unsplash.