Full Wallets, Impoverished Souls

In addition to studying towards my Phd, I work in the technology industry as a medium-level manager. My speciality is in managing teams that develop websites. It’s a reasonable job, it pays the bills, and allows me sufficient space for me to do my academic work: however as Legion said in Stephen King’s “Storm of the Century”, “Hell is repetition”. I do keep seeing the same situation repeated over and over, and across companies: there are always the same agendas, the same politics, and the same loud hiss of inflating egos.

The fact that I’ve plucked this particular string to near breaking point does give me a certain freedom. I’m not going to become a director, nor do I want to be. I’d have to lie and pretend bad decisions are good ones far too often in order to get to that level. I’d also have to flatter egos I have no interest in flattering. I get reminded of my revulsion often: I sit at senior level meetings and watch the resulting scrum of directors climbing over each other, trying to make each other look bad in the eyes of the company’s owner, and feel a certain sense of detachment as a result.

An old song sung by Tommies after the First World War often springs to mind as I watch this spectacle:

We fought the war / What was it for? / What was it for?

The managers who are so desperately trying to kill each other are doing it not for some great or noble cause, they’re doing it so they can be uber Senior Director of this and that, in a company that makes obscure widgets in Upper Gobshite, Berkshire. The winners may get a corner office. They may be able to afford a BMW. The mortgage may rest a bit easier on their shoulders. But is it worth engaging in plots worthy of medieval Venice? Is it worth the resulting turbulence in the lives of those who work for both the winners and the losers of this week’s intrigue?

The truth is that this behaviour is the result of a very simple problem: people have problems accepting the idea that they are but a grain of sand in a much wider universe. Puffed up with pride, ego and consumerism, we all are put into a situation where we are encouraged to believe that we are the fixed point around which the world revolves. Advertisements tell us what luxuries we deserve. Magazines tell us how to look like top models. The media encourages the idea that we too can be celebrities. Life should be perfect, is the message. We also envy those celebrities who supposedly have enough money and fame to make life perfect, and laugh at them when they fall: note the attention paid to Amy Winehouse. It’s no wonder that management is trying to kill each other, lurking in the corners of boardrooms with rhetorical daggers – each of them isn’t the manager of the widget production line, they’re Richard III, the President of the United States or Jade Goody.

It’s at this point that I should mention my relative insignificance. I am by no means anything near a model or celebrity. I am unlikely to be wealthy or famous: if some people read the books I have produced and will produce, I will be happy. I am glad that I have had the chance to improve some things for those who have worked for me. My hopes revolve around finding a place at a university to teach and to perhaps leave a legacy of having helped train some talented writers. That said, it is likely that my own presence will be a footnote on the cosmic ledger. But what I can say for my life, is that I am doing my utmost to avoid doing damage to the world around me. It’s a drop in the ocean, but at least it’s mine.

I do wonder how many problems we are facing now come from leading the sort of life that churns with ambition, pretention and ego centricity. The medieval Venetians of the boardroom are likely to grab as much as possible, leaving the price to be paid by other people. It is not just poisoning the morals upon which civilised behaviour is based, this is destroying the planet: if we all just take, and keep taking, eventually there will be nothing left to grab.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a comfortable life. There is something deeply wrong with the idea that we can all achieve magnitude in consequence and prosperity, and that we actually deserve such accolades. Policy likely cannot fix this problem; it is a philosophical, moral attitude, which sadly has been ignored in many environmental prescriptions, because it is so difficult to fix. Perhaps the answer lies in the word “sustainability”, the way things are running now cannot be sustained, certainly. But neither can the human soul.

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