Is this the real world?
SOME things they never warn you about in school.'' Where have I heard that before? It seems people were always saying that to me a few years back. Older people -- parents, friends of my parents, employers during my summer jobs -- were all concerned from time to time that I might have become a little spoiled in college, and that I might wind up taking the so-called real world a little too lightly. ``Life is real and earnest,'' my mother used to say; and I would laugh. I would laugh because I knew she was right. I was prepared. I was no cynic, but I kept up with things. I read the papers. I listened to my father's stories of hard times at work, and knew that I had to be ready for some heavy challenges; I couldn't expect to ride Pollyanna's cloud to fame and fortune. I knew, too, something that my wise parents and friends didn't seem to know -- that college was not divorced from the real world. In some ways it even seemed harder than the real world. I had never seen my
father stay up all night to finish an office project; but my fellow students and I worked from dusk until dawn more often than we would like to admit. I had never known my father to produce, in a day, a 20-page analysis of a problem at work; but I did that more than once for a 24-hour take-home final. No, I knew what work was. The real world wasn't going to surprise me.
But it did surprise me. It has surprised me, and in a way no one ever warned me about -- not at home, not at school, not at the jobs I've held. In fact, the world has been so quiet about this particular surprise that I'm inclined to think I'm living in a kind of embarrassed silence: No one knows what to say. The surprise is not that the working world is more difficult than school. The surprise is how often one has to fight disillusionment and loneliness, even in the best jobs.
The working world is full of a kind of black humor that attempts to bind people merrily in a common struggle: blue Monday, the tired executive spilling orange juice on his display transparencies, the secretary misrouting incoming calls on the switchboard. These may be worth a sympathetic laugh, but they're not the central problem. The central problem is that of, say, the utilities executive who has weighed corporate and public welfare for 10 years and suddenly finds both scales coming up empty; or the h igh-school teacher who, after 15 years, finds that the works of Shakespeare no longer move her enough for her to teach them; or the secretary who, having served several bosses faithfully for 7 years, begins to fight a feeling deep inside of her that nobody cares about her; or an editor who, after 3 years, begins to think that every front page sounds the same. My own story is that of a writer who has taught literature for several years now and finds that all the stories and all the explanations have begun to
blur, to lose their crispness and vigor.
It cannot be that men and women should wind down like old clocks, losing minutes and hours, losing the wild bells and brilliant chimes of the new day. Was it for this that we attended school for all those years, I ask myself -- to wonder, finally, whether we are dull creatures doing monotonous and unappreciated tasks in the great depths of space? It is ludicrous to permit such a belief, to consent to the nostalgic falsehood that the best years were those when we were waiting naively for these years, hop ing for a fulfillment we could never have.
Longing is always better than reality, some people say, and a great deal of literature has been written with precisely that idea in mind. I don't believe it. I won't stand for it. The wild heart of life does not give out and depart because we have grown insensitive to its rhythms. It is there, always, awaiting a sudden attentiveness from us, full of everything we think we have lost. What is the answer? A change of scene? A new job? ``The universe is wider than our views of it,'' says Thoreau, and ``. . . we should oftener look over the tafferel of our craft, like curious passengers, and not make the voyage like stupid sailors picking oakum.''
As I grow older I find it easier to take on the role of the stupid sailor, picking and fuming on the dank deck of his ship while the world rushes by. It was a role I never thought to acquire; and once acquired, it can be difficult to shake. But there is the world -- right there -- as near as the sea peeling past the bow. What we need is for one wave to crash over that bow, and shake us out of our stupor, so that we might see.