Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Career and Relationships.. and where

Please note: I would really like to hear people's thoughts on this, so if ever you were inclined to comment on a blog post, this would be a great time to do that! Or drop me an email. Cheers ;)

This season of my life has been a time of transition and trying to figure out what's next. I've come up with lots of metaphors these months to describe where I am. See two posts ago for the quote about the jigsaw pieces thrown in the air. Another image is of being on a roller coaster, at the top of one of those steep inclines that you slowly slowly inch up, teetering on the top, about to be released to go down - but I've never been on this roller coaster before so I don't know what to expect, and so I just sit at the top of the climb, waiting. Another image is of having come to a fork in the road, thinking one path is probably the right one, but there's a barrier up against that route saying there's construction and I should take a detour. But the detour just looks wrong, for any one of a variety of reasons. And another route might work, but well, it's not headed the way I think I should be going. So it seems like I should just stand at the fork and wait for the construction to end, or else look for something that makes the detour look safer, or for a hint that the other route is actually the right one.

It's this last image I want to explore here: let's say the three routes being presented at the fork in the road are: career, location and relationships. (I know this is a simplification, but simplifications have their use.) So I'm at this point of transition where I can choose the next step based on a career direction, and that's the road that's wide open and, at first glance, seemed the right route. But as I look at my map, I am suspecting that actually, the career road is not the right one; it's the relationships road. But that's the one with the barrier; according to the map - and my gut - that road is the right one to take, but it's just simply not an option at this point - because of construction, or because of the barrier blocking my way in. So I could take the detour, which is making a choice based on location. That will probably eventually get me somewhere, but it just looks wrong, perhaps it's a bit dangerous or a bit too rough or maybe the problem is just that there's no guarantee it will pan out as a legitimate detour.

This metaphor is, I think, all about a search for identity. I know my identity is most firmly rooted in my faith, but faith is a spiritual concept which needs a more humanly concrete face. Religion is the most common face given to faith, and that's often a very good thing. But if faith is about everything in life, unless my "religion" (i.e. churchgoing or working at a religious establishment) is my life, then identity will have to be about something more. Is then my identity about where I'm from? I have always had trouble with the fact that I don't identify with a place. Is my identity about my career? I am a sociologist, I am a community development worker, I am a writer? This is probably the way I have most typically thought of myself, and it's the way I've been encouraged to think by my cultural surroundings.

But, what about the third category: is my identity about people? Is it about who I care about and who is important in my life and the people to whom I am important? I think this is probably one of the most common sources of identity in the world, i.e. family. But a young professional like myself whose family and loved friends are spread around the world is not really expected to think that way. But, coming back to the root of who I am, my faith, I think that since my faith is about a relationship, maybe relationships should be at the top of the list. That I should choose that road at the fork, because if my identity is rooted in relationships, I assume it should just follow that I make important decisions on that basis.

...But what to do when the barrier is blocking it? Wait for the construction to be complete? Take the detour? Go somewhere else? But, even more elementally, what does it mean to choose to make people my priority? I have been thinking a lot about that, because again, according to the way of thinking I've grown up around, basically that means the nuclear family: making decisions as a family, with a spouse. But surely there are other models of relationally-focused lives? Catholics are really good at this, because convents and monasteries are an amazing example of putting relationship into practice. There are communities throughout the U.S. that I've been learning about that are working to be intentional about coming together as a group of people and being more than just friends - being truly committed to each other. All of these seem very radical to me, but maybe that is the point: to embrace a value system that is important to my faith but not prioritised in my culture, maybe I have to do something radical.

Monday, March 10, 2008

drowning those sorrows!

Ever since I moved from the teetotalling (at least in public) Middle East to the pub culture of England, the concept of alcohol has fascinated me. My department-mates in Bristol would send around emails asking if anyone "fancies going out and getting fantastically wasted tonight?" In the gym locker room 2nd year girls would brag about their impressive hangovers. And to cap it all off, I was told by friends in the church I started attending that on weekends away, they had the tradition of bringing loads of wine to enjoy together. During years that the church hired a "dry" Christian retreat centre, they'd just keep the wine in their cars and sneak out at night to drink the wine, like teenagers sneaking around in parking lots.

I know there's the light buzz, or slightly-tipsy status that probably most drinkers enjoy, and is maybe even the intention of many who accidentally go too far... it's what removes our inhibitions from getting out there on the dance floor or from actually saying what we think. But isn't there something beautiful in being able to do such things without giving credit to the alcohol? Isn't it that much more amazing that I can get out there on the dance floor if I want to, simply because I am free to do so? That I will talk freely and openly and really mean it? That I can simply be drunk on life?

What fascinates me even more is that many people like to drink but not get drunk, at all. After all, alcoholic beverages cost on average 2 to 3 times the price of non-alcoholic drinks. (To be fair, I probably fit into this category - especially when the drinks are provided because I figure someone paid all that money so I might as well not let it go to waste - and I find endless entertainment in the concept of mixed drinks, cocktails, endless innovations in flavour...) I'm thinking, though, of people like my friend yesterday who said as she was preparing to go out at night that she would be drinking at the party we were attending so she needed to eat something so that she wouldn't be too affected by the alcohol. Many of my Middle Eastern friends who don't fit into the teetotaller category love to drink but not for its mind-altering effects.

Could it be the image? If so, is it the image of being of-age (especially in the U.S. where the 21-year old drinking age limit is so religiously enforced that people frequently get fantastically wasted, even often alcohol-poisoned, simply because they are FINALLY allowed - not to mention the frequent disastrous house parties where underage drinkers do stupid things en masse)? Is it the image of demonstrating that they can drink but not act like fools? I think it's something a bit less tangible, though, of wanting the privilege of the forbidden, of participating in the aura of danger and glamour and who-knows-what-else that surrounds alcohol. For years now, I've been wondering why alcohol has that special quality, and I continue to come up short. I know that there are nuances of flavour in alcoholic drinks that one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Especially wines: the nicest restaurants with the most exotic multiple-course menus offer small portions of wine that are carefully tailored to match each course perfectly. I think this explains a large part, if not all, of my church-mates' fascination with drinking, and I do suppose they are beginning to rub off on me. But no, there really is some thrill in the very fact that something has alcohol in it!

Anyway, moving back to a world where alcohol was openly a part of life, this was all quite a lot to take in, and it took me a while to get used to it. That meant it took me a while to make friends with my department-mates, not knowing how to get fantastically wasted, nor why I would ever want to, nor how I could afford it even I did know why and how. In fact, getting drunk has never had any appeal to me.

The attitude of many of my friends who love to drink actually makes me immensely sad. I once asked a friend who was bragging about his latest hangover why he did it, and he told me it was to forget. Because life is just too depressing, and it's nice to escape that. Being a sociologist, he would often read the sociological theory which he loved, experience an ensuing feeling of meaninglessness, then drink the misery off so he could repeat the process the next day. I'm not wanting to make a moral argument against drinking here, but still, there is something just so profoundly saddening in such a statement!

Last night at the party I went to, there was a young man there who was so drunk he could barely stand up - he might have been consuming something more than alcohol, actually. But he was trying so so so hard to enjoy the party. He found a relatively empty space in the room and tried to dance but was too plastered to do so, so he just awkwardly swayed for a few minutes before club security helped him on his way. What was going on in his life that made him so desperate to have fun that he ruined his chances at it? I looked around the room and saw a roomful of people trying. There was the sketchy guy who didn't know how to dance in an appropriate manner so found himself alone - he actually inched up on groups of friends dancing trying to look like he was one of them. There was the couple who was dancing so sensually that it just looked desperate. Then there were the drinkers, the ones who ordered fancy cocktails and waved them around like a part of their costume. And the ones who drank a bit more to dance a bit harder. And the ones who were aiming to be drunk... to escape. A room dedicated to fun and enjoyment - it was like most people were in the room because they wanted to have fun and didn't know how, so they came to let the drinks and the loud music and the strobe lights do it for them.