Entry 99: Over and Over– What does it mean to live a life that has meaning? I never had to ask myself this question until I was approaching 25 years of age. Well, maybe these existential queries did intrude on my psyche before this time, but, for the sake of this journal entry, let’s just pretend that I was a wide-eyed innocent as I answered the door one Saturday morning.
I remember a vacuum-cleaner salesman of about thirty who originated from the New England tablelands: I invited him into our rented house on Paulsgrove Street in Gwynneville, Wollongong in 1975. I was protected by my employment by the Education Department of NSW from privation even if luxuries were mere aspirations at the time. He tried to tell me that I needed his product even though it was evident that I had sanded and estapolled the floorboards of the whole house and had scattered a few budget rugs here and there to make the Government Real Estate property seem more like a home.
I didn’t buy his product, but I will never forget the look in his eyes as he registered yet another failure on his journey and confided that he was for the chop. Within five years I was in a better position to empathise: six months without a job, watching savings dwindle and feeling less and less like a man. Fast forward about ten years and I’m back in Sydney. Again, six months without a job, I scan the papers: not that I have many options outside of teaching. Even so-called educationalists are a bit leery about employing Shakespeare-loving, poetry-spouting candidates: one snide Principal even writes that my CV is incredible.
Thankfully, I have only had to endure a year’s unemployment in total over a working life of 42 years. However, back when I was in my mid-twenties, I met a muso who had suffered a back injury, was unemployed, and was despairing that he would be excluded from the world that everyone else so smugly inhabited. I regret to report that I did not pay much attention to his sob-story, especially because he seemed perfectly mobile and displayed no pain; I also remember thinking that he could kick back and collect benefits for the rest of his natural.
What I missed, until I had a taste of it myself, was the soul-destroying grind that being unwillingly unemployed imposes. In Cushendall, in the winter of early 1979 I found myself sitting in pubs with people who hadn’t worked in years, in decades, and didn’t want to. I found I had little in common with them and soon avoided the interaction. Ten years later in Werrington, I again felt adrift and afflicted with ennui as I left my wife at the station to commute to Parramatta for her job while I picked up a few casual teaching days here and there, wondering when a permanent job would eventuate: back then the idea that experienced teachers would long endure the uncertainty of casualisation was not a reality until the new millennium with its challenges and changes hove into view in the mid-nineties when I wrote this song.
I thought of the vacuum-cleaner salesman and the injured muso from twenty years before and wondered how they had fared. Bruce Dawe, in his poem, Doctor to Patient, compares unemployment with a disease that increasingly isolates the individual as, in the monologue, the doctor outlines some of the treatment options to his patient, you’ll no doubt be urged to try the various / recommended anodynes: editorials in newspapers, / voluntary unpaid work for local charities, booze, / other compulsive mind-destroyers, prayers, comforting talks with increasingly less-interested friends. The doctor concludes by reassuring the afflicted teenager that you will be relieved to know the disease/is only in a minority of cases terminal. / Most, that is, survive.
But not all: Sarah Boseley, writing in The Guardian of 11 February 2015 reports that 45,000 suicides a year- or one in five of the total worldwide- are attributable to the distress and despair brought on by unemployment. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, warns Roger Webb and Navneet Kapur, from the University of Manchester,
Many affected individuals who remain in work during these hard times encounter serious psychological stressors due to pernicious economic strains other than unemployment, including falling income, zero-hour contracting, job insecurity, bankruptcy, debt, and home repossession… we also require a better understanding of other psychosocial manifestations of economic adversity, including non-fatal self-harm, stress and anxiety, low mood, hopelessness, alcohol problems, anger, familial conflict and relationship breakdown.
They add: We also need to know how and why highly resilient individuals who experience the greatest levels of economic adversity manage to sustain favourable mental health and wellbeing.
Amen to that!