Here’s me, two Saturdays ago, 5:30am, about an hour into an 18 mile run:
It’s pitch dark and it’s maybe 20 degrees outside. The cold irritates me (though I’m used to it) but the dark, save the light from my headlamp, is actually quite awesome. The world is almost preternaturally quiet. I’ve only seen a car or two so far, and everybody seems to still be tucked nicely into bed. There’s no street noise and no barking dogs. It’s like the world itself is on pause.
A lot of people hate running, but I’ve grown to love these long, early runs. I feel like I have the jump on everyone else’s day. I feel like I’m conquering something. A run this long is no longer precisely hard so much as it is simply long.
I hear a noise behind me. An engine. Headlights illuminate some reflective strips on a mailbox ahead of me. But the engine, the truck or whatever it is, stops. A while later, it starts again, but doesn’t quite reach me. It stops again. Pauses. Resumes.
It’s the garbageman. I didn’t know that garbage trucks ran on Saturdays at 5:30am, but apparently they do. And my thought, as the truck finally passes me and stops a few houses up to load a few more bags, is That poor son of a bitch.
He’s got to be angry. Anyone would be. It’s his Saturday, and he has to be out here, picking up everyone else’s shit hours before dawn.
But as I run past him, bracing myself for his disgust at the chipper go-getter out here on a fun run while he’s working his ass off, he’s out of the truck with some bags in his hands and he smiles and nods and says, “Good morning.”
Which is when I realize that he’s probably doing just fine… but that he’s probably feeling sorry for me. I’ve got to be miserable. Anyone would be. It’s my Saturday, and I had to drag my ass out of bed and into the freezing cold, sweating it out and huffing and puffing hours before dawn.
Being a garbageman does not suck.
My wife Robin reads these. Relax, dear. I have no plans to become a garbageman.
But think about something for a second:
No matter how well-adjusted and understanding we think we are, most of us are still prejudiced because most of us still think certain things suck. My son Austin thinks green peppers suck. Robin thinks Star Trek: The Next Generation sucks. I like both of those things a lot, but think that gummy worms (Austin) and General Hospital (Robin) suck.
A lot of people who signed up for Question the Rules thought that working nine-to-five in an office sucked.
And almost all of us think that being a garbageman would suck. Along with cleaning septic tanks, cleaning up medical waste, or mopping up at a porn theater.
But those things don’t suck. Nothing sucks.
There is no absolute, universal conception of time or location, and there’s no absolute, universal conception of suck. All three can only be defined subjectively, relative to where you are, where you’re going, and how fast you’re moving.
Sucking is relative
POSIT: Lima beans suck.
RESPONSE: Really? Compared to what? Do they suck compared to Pop Tarts, or do they suck compared to starving to death?
Give some shitty, mealy, disgusting and even overcooked lima beans to starving people and I’ll bet they love them. I’ll bet they declare that the lima beans absolutely do NOT suck, no matter how much you may abhor them next to your steak or mashed potatoes.
JON MORROW INSPIRED POSIT: Not being able to move from the neck down sucks.
JON MORROW RESPONSE: Compared to being the same in every way but now being able to run, skip, and jump? Or compared to being able-bodied but being a total fucking idiot?
Jon told me that everyone is disabled. Jon’s disability is physical, but he has a brilliant mind. I didn’t ask him this specifically, but I’d bet he’d take it every single time over being totally mobile but, as his mother put it, “unable to think.”
POSIT: Being a garbageman sucks.
RESPONSE: Not so sure anymore, are we?
It isn’t what happens to you that sucks. It’s what you do about it that determines if it sucks.
Quote totally adapted for suck purposes from W. Mitchell.
But think about it. I’d decided that this garbageman was having a terrible time. Poor, poor guy and his poor, unfortunate life. But what did I know? Maybe he liked the solitude of the job. Maybe he was working on a novel in the evenings, so he chose a non-cerebral, physical job to save his creative gas. Maybe he liked working before the sun came up because it gave him the whole “real day” off.
Maybe he lived in a really nice house. Maybe he had grand goals. Maybe he wanted to become a supervisor in the same company, or maybe he wanted to leave sanitation soon and pursue a post-doc degree or start his own business or become an architect. Or a city engineer, who designed more environmentally friendly landfills. Who could know? I certainly couldn’t. And it’s pretty damn unfair to assume that the fact that he was picking up garbage meant that his life sucked, or even that his job sucked.
Maybe he was right where he wanted to be at that moment. Maybe he was headed toward right where he wanted to go. And maybe he was happy.
And from his perspective, maybe that poor son of a bitch out running at 5:30 was doing it because he wanted to, as ridiculous as that notion was.
I asked myself, If I found myself in his job, would I totally despair? Would it totally bum me out, ruin my worldview, crush my spirit, and turn me into a miserable person?
And the answer was, Only if I let it.
It would depend on what the job meant to me. It would depend on whether I found I liked it or not. It would depend on how long I thought I’d be there, if I had goals, if I was moving toward those goals. I’m an optimistic person, so when I put myself in his shoes, the notion didn’t disturb me at all. I don’t think I’d want to be a garbageman, but if I found I didn’t and wanted to change it, I know I could. And even if I couldn’t, I know I could find other ways to be satisfied than to put all of that responsibility for my happiness on my job. So why should it bum me out?
Does being a garbageman suck?
Compared to what? Does it suck compared to having no job and living in a box? For that matter, does it suck compared to being rich and living on an island… but also having a family who hates you, or having a terminal disease?
I’ll take the trash job, thanks.
How to determine what sucks
Just answer and address three questions:
- Where are you now?
- Where do you want to be (in terms of true, root desires)?
- How are you doing at closing the gap between #1 and #2?
So. If you’re a garbageman and want to be a garbageman, then congratulations: You have zero gap and it doesn’t suck. If you’re a garbageman and want to be a senator, then you may be discontent, which is another word for suck. And if you’re making no progress, then that’s even more suck.
But this is important: If you have a shitty car, that car only sucks if you really, truly, deeply want a better one. If, when you think about it, you only think your car sucks because all of your friends have better ones but you’re otherwise fine with it, then it doesn’t suck at all.
(I’ll note here that I’ve prattled on WAY too long to go into how to determine your “true, root desires” at this point. I’ve got a ton more around in bits and pieces here on the blog, and we beat it to death in the “How to Determine Your Real Goals” module in Question the Rules. Suffice to say that often you think you want something or have a goal when in fact you don’t. [Can of worms open.])
And if you think your job or house sucks, ask what you’re comparing it to. Get some perspective. And then, if there’s a gap between what you have or where you are and what you truly want or where you truly want to be, ask what you’re doing about it and how it’s going.
And only then can you say if it sucks.
I guess this post is going to just kind of end rather than finish with some grand lesson. It’s more about an epiphany than instructional anyway. The question of how to eradicate true suck from your life is way too large to answer in one post, so for now, just determine if things really suck, or if you’re playing the comparison game in a way that’s making things harder.
And I guess the real question as you go forth in life is: Do you want to work on fixing the real suck that you find, or waste time on the phantom suck?
Oh, and don’t assume your garbageman or septic tank guy has a shitty lot just because he’s a septic tank guy. Maybe he likes it. Maybe approach him with an open mind instead of all sympathetic-like. Maybe he’s in a good spot. Maybe he feels sorry for you. You never know.
(Except that I guess in that case, even if he likes it, a septic tank guy still has a “shitty” job. I guess that’s kind of baked in.)