Gratefulness is a concept I’m pretty familiar with, and something I try to practice every day. As a former Buddhist, practicer of mindfulness meditation, and mental health service volunteer, I find myself constantly discussing the concept of being grateful for what we have and trying to make the most out of what we are given. I often tell people that, in my travels, I have seen people who have less than nothing, who live in what many would consider unlivable circumstances. I remind myself, and others, that we should be grateful for any beauty and happiness we can experience. When one of the people I volunteer with tells me about a negative experience, I make a point to try and tell them how strong they are for surviving it, how resilient I think they are, and how grateful I am that they have come through the other side. This is in the hope that they, too, will come to see the silver lining, no matter how small, to understand their own power, and to be grateful that they are alive.
Recently, I was reminded of this by a snarky friend(?) of mine whilst complaining about my day job. This person felt it necessary to remind me to ‘practice what I preach’, that I shouldn’t complain about my job because so many people would be happy to have any job at all, and that ‘it’s better than being out on the street’. This is not the first time this friend(?) has made a similar comment, and since I have had a difficult past two years it only gets more frustrating every time. This particular unwanted, sarcastic, and frankly infuriating response to what I saw as legitimate complaints, however, really got me thinking. Perhaps, I thought, I should stop complaining so much. But the thing is, I do hate my job and I do feel sometimes that life has dealt me a crap hand. I do not feel that I am being, as the friend(?) put it, ‘melodramatic’ and ‘overemotional’. I started to wonder where the line is – that is, how grateful am I expected to be for things which do not make me happy, and which I do not enjoy? Is it being ungrateful to expect more for myself, to hope for more out of my life? Where is the line between gratefulness and lowered expectations?
I should start by explaining a little about what I do. I am, essentially, a career volunteer. I graduated from a good university with a 2:1 (that’s about a 3.8 GPA for all y’all Americans out there) in China Studies, and I hope to one day get my masters degree in Social Policy. My real passion, however, is helping others and advocating for social change. I am, as my blog bio says, an unabashed feminist. I work with local charity organizations and political parties, volunteering my time and effort where its needed and trying to do a little good. I love the work I do. It is endlessly fulfilling, heartbreaking, joyful, uplifting, harrowing, and downright amazing to work with women who have seen the absolute darkest parts of human nature and come out fighting on the other side of it. It is also unpaid.
So, to provide income to carve out a meager living on canned soup and secondhand clothes, I work in a fast food restaurant. I have worked in the food industry in kitchens for over two years, with negative experiences pretty much across the board, and I will loudly tell anyone who asks that it is one of the worst jobs on the planet. You get no respect, the same pay as people who do significantly less work than you, and you always smell of food. The first place I worked in the kitchen, a glorified concession stand at the local concert venue, was a nightmarish example of Britain’s fabled ‘zero-hour contract’ system. Employers can hire you with a contract which does not guarantee you any hours, and can literally work you to death or make you beg for two hours a week depending on how generous they are feeling each week. My experience had more of the latter, and on top of that they employed around 400 people (most of whom were apathetic first year university students working for weekend drink money, all of whom I had to compete with for shifts based on who replied to the weekly shift emails fastest). There were also a lot of drunk, yelling customers, and a manager nicknamed ‘the dragon lady’ who once gave me a very loud and public tongue-lashing because she didn’t like the way I wear my makeup.
After several weeks of two-hour shifts which basically covered my transport to work with very little to spare, I found a job working in a pub kitchen in a place owned by Britain’s largest pub chain. Already feeling like I had sold my soul to the corporate devil, I was unsurprised when faced with months on end of bad management, degradation, and casual workplace sexism. There was a two month period where I came home and cried myself to sleep after every shift. I started going to therapy where I was advised that I needed to either find a really good hobby or a new job. I handed in my resignation after a particularly hurtful encounter with a coworker, and signed myself up for unemployment benefit.
My experience with the benefits system was, predictably, a hideously degrading and infuriating romp through the limits of what my sanity can handle before I lose my mind completely. The details of the experience are definitely for another post, but let me just say that anyone who is on government benefits for any extended period of time and does not go on a mad murder spree is a champ. I was expected to live on 57 pounds a week, which is fine if you, like me, are also having your rent and taxes paid by the government. By ‘fine’ I mean I could afford food, I could afford clothes, I could even afford to treat myself every once and a while. But I was constantly aware that if anything went wrong, if I needed to pay an unexpected bill or fee, I would, in no uncertain terms, be fucked. I was also made to attend frequent career counseling sessions where I, along with an odd range of other job seekers — confused 30-something single moms, angry 20-something construction workers, frustrated Eastern European cleaners, angsty 17 year olds who had just left school, etc. It was like The Breakfast Club, except not even remotely funny — were given bad advice on our CVs, told we weren’t working hard enough to find jobs, and generally condescended to for several hours at a time. It was not fun, and it was not at all what I had come to expect as the experience of people on benefits, who we’re always told are lazy and do nothing to earn their government-determined salaries. These people, like me, were hard working, determined, and they were trying their best.
Finally, after months of admittedly half-hearted CV distribution (I wasn’t over-eager to get back into the thing that I hate, but wasn’t receiving enough money to live on and had finally burned through my savings), I received a trial shift as a front-of-house staff member (as in not in the kitchen) at a locally owned fast food restaurant. Despite the obvious downsides – I hate the industry, I had to keep going back every other day for three weeks before they remembered to give me shifts, I still don’t understand the management hierarchy – I took the job because it is locally owned (I was tired of working for the soulless corporate machine) and because, honestly, I felt like the place was badly managed and I could get away with more shift swapping and 10 minute ‘toilet’ breaks (I was right). What I got, however, has been a horrendous shitstorm of bad management the likes of which I could probably have imagined, but never thought I would actually experience in person. Without dragging it out into a rant, I will say that the place is a mess, the management is apathetic, the sanitation standards are questionable, and I have, despite numerous efforts, never actually received a contract or any written proof that I’m actually employed by the company.
So, where am I going with all this? Well, all of my jobs so far have had three things in common: (1) they sucked, (2) I basically had no choice but to accept them or face some pretty serious financial consequences (I have no financial fall-back – my family is unable or unwilling to assist me), and (3) I got paid minimum wage. I have always said and believed that minimum wage is basically a giant ‘fuck you’ from your employer, essentially a not-so-subtle way of saying ‘I wish I could value your time less, but I am not legally permitted to do so’. I am not in any way alone in this: many people, including many of my peers from university, the women I volunteer with, and my mom, work a minimum wage job at one point in their life. And, in the same way minimum wage is the bare minimum of giving-a-shit that an employer can provide, a minimum wage job is kind of the bare minimum of giving-a-shit that society can provide. Telling someone they should be grateful for minimum wage, especially if you, like many people who share this view, are not a minimum wage worker, is like running over someone’s left arm and saying ‘Hey, at least you can still write!’* It is a massive ‘fuck you’ to someone who is struggling, who is probably not experiencing a lot of financial security or general life satisfaction. Telling that person they are being ungrateful for demanding that they be treated better, for expecting better out of their life and out of other people is, well, just being an asshole.
Gratefulness is important. It is about looking at what you have and saying ‘Hey, look at all my stuff! That’s some okay stuff!’ and remembering those who have less. It’s about finding beauty in your life despite the ugliness, and admiring yourself for the person who has come through negativity and still stands tall. There is a difference between gratefulness and settling. It is okay to not settle. It is possible to be grateful for what you have, your experiences and opportunities, while expecting and demanding more out of life than what you’ve got. There are times when people do need to be reminded that they should be grateful, when they are feeling really low and need to remember why their life is worth living; There are other times when doing so is simply silencing what they are trying to express.
So I guess my message here, I guess, would be that I am, despite what you may think incredibly grateful for the life I have. I love my life and I wouldn’t want to be anyone else. I still recognise, and remember every day, that things could be much worse, that I am lucky, and that there are those out there who have things much worse than me. However, I do not love my job. I hate it. I expect more of it. I expect more of my life. That’s not me being ungrateful or entitled or spoiled, that is me standing up for myself as a person and asserting that I have value and that I deserve more. I think everyone deserves to feel that way.
*Assuming they’re right-handed, otherwise reverse that.