On saying goodbye...
There’s this metal toy slinky that’s been in my possession for about 3 years now. When I started working at the bank back in 2011, there was a highly disgruntled worker who had been doing the same repetitive desk job for about ten years.
On his desk was that same metal slinky that he grabbed every time he was bored. Needless to say, it got used a lot. About a year after I started, he had suddenly left the job and the slinky got left behind. I never found out about his future, but hope he went off to find better days.
I was tasked with cleaning out his desk, and I found the slinky left behind. So instead of throwing it in the trash, I took the slinky into my possession and kept it tucked away in the drawer of my desk. What I didn’t realize was that I was taking over his patterns of unhappiness as I started down the same dull path that he was on. I’d been at the job for one year when I realized I was deeply unhappy there. Then two passed, then three more.
As my 4-year work ‘anniversary’ approached, I was filled with dread. How could I possibly still be working a job that was so not fit for me? It was exhausting to drag myself into a place 5 days a week that didn’t make me happy. The office was filled with wonderful people, but the job itself was not well suited for me. I spent years complaining about the job and the work, but the issue was that I wasn’t doing anything about it. Instead of leaving the job, I chose to stay and complain. At some point down the road, at an apartment party in Toronto, someone asked the inevitable question - what do you do? On that day, I stopped complaining and learned to answer quickly and then change the topic. My new strategy was to keep it all in and pretend that everything was fine. Repression is an important ingredient if you’re looking to let anxiety simmer.
Today was my last day volunteering in Bali. I said goodbye to many kids that I have really grown attached to. I didn’t bring much with me in my backpack on this long-term trip, but I did bring that tiny metal toy slinky with me. No longer would sullen employees reach for the slinky in their cubicles. Today was the day that I gifted the slinky to a student here, freeing it from a history of unhappy workers.
We were on the beach and the students were swimming. I had the slinky in my pocket and I was looking for one particular student. He’s a great drawer and writer, and I hadn’t formally said goodbye to him after the hectic end of the school week. Then, in that exact moment, he sat right down next to me on the beach with a huge smile on his face (one that the Balinese are so well known for). Impeccable timing. Bali works in interesting ways.
And so, I passed the slinky over to him and his eyes filled with wonder. He started playing with it and exploring all the different ways that it could be used. A friend of his came over and they played with it for nearly 30 minutes.
To many, including him, this seems like a simple gift give-away. A tiny, polite gesture. But to me, this was deeply symbolic. It represents breaking free from the dark path of monotony and boredom that I felt myself wandering down.
I know I’m not alone in how I felt back in that office. At times, I felt it was hard to breath. Sometimes I needed to step out of the office and take a walk because I felt this terrible feeling of dread build up inside me.
I'll call it what it was -- I developed anxiety throughout my years in the office. In particular, the anxiety got bad every time that I thought of my future and how I might never leave the job or find what interested me in life. I felt these feelings in my first year of employment, and the anxiety grew intensely for another three years after then. The feeling of being trapped is one of the most horrific, and it’s even worse when you feel no one else can help.
During my very last morning class with the kids here in Bali, one of my students (who is always absent and slightly disruptive) brought a surprise for me as a goodbye gift. He told me to go ahead to the beach and he would meet me there with the rest of the class. The gift was one of the most unique I've ever received, and a really thoughtful way of saying goodbye.
A plate of five delicious, spicy, fish, caught by his father, and personally cooked by him and his mother. We ate those fish right there on the beach at 10:30 in the morning as a class, and I couldn't have been more thankful.
I will miss these kids very much. They represent change, hope, and kindness in so many ways. And to think that I wouldn't have had the pleasure of meeting them if I never made it out of that office.
If you’re feeling trapped, I want you to know that one day you’ll break free. Today when I passed that toy slinky to a child in rural Bali, I felt the greatest weight lift away from me on that beach. I wish I could tell you how powerful this tiny gesture felt. I didn’t pass him my misery, I passed him a symbol that shows that change is possible. The slinky wasn’t destined to sit at a desk forever, and neither was I.
I still don’t claim to know what my future career will be. I still have lots of uncertainty in my life. But one thing for certain is that I was able to break free from that anguishing grasp. If I feel myself sinking into career-induced-anxiety in the future, I’ll think back to this moment on the beach. A little tiny toy, holding the weight of years of anxiety- was transformed back into a child’s plaything.
Finding your way out is just part of the game. The dire circumstances that we find ourselves in are hardly fun or enjoyable, but in reality, getting out means you win. You'll have to play some variation of the game time and time again in life, but you'll get better at it the more you play it. Break free. Find the exit. Sometimes you need help, sometimes you just need time. But no matter how stressful it gets, keep fighting until the end. There is reward waiting on the other side.
Have you found your way out?
See also: We Are Free