There are a few jobs everyone should have at some point in life. Among other humbling lessons, they teach you important truths like the one in the title of this post. Usually these kinds of jobs are minimum-wage, entry-level training for young, energetic people who by realizing the value of starting at the bottom, will appreciate the ride to the top. I found the reverse is also true.
By that, I mean I did it backwards. I was neither young nor energetic and like that one long slide down the game board in Chutes and Ladders, I rolled the dice of life, lost, and though still in the game, I was forced to start over again on the bottom rung. But at 53 and a janitor, I learned more about life from that work than in any other job before. Or since.
Contentment trumps happiness.
If for $9 an hour you’ve never willingly entered a freshly ripened restroom so thick with stench that your eyes water to chop up a stranger’s giant loaf in a toilet bowl so it will finally flush, your lesson in humility may be incomplete. If that didn’t gross you out, I have plenty more janitor stories that will.
Let’s be honest. In this world of status, janitor hangs on the last rung. The single, scowling, homely, isolated man who works alone late into the nights in a dark and dingy workroom nobody dares to visit unless they are making a scary movie. You know all the stereotypes. This is the guy who never made much of his life by the standards of most. Being a janitor generally means if it stinks, smokes, leaks, drips, bursts, doesn’t work, wasn’t ordered or isn’t right, it falls into your lap and scope of responsibility regardless of your ability to find the solution. You are the first line of defense when others excuse themselves from the task because by default, you’re the expert.
I was at a time in my life when my peers were winding down their work and earning and if not there already, planning stages for a comfortable retirement filled with travel to exotic locations, golf and grandkids, American-style. You would have had every right to call me a liar if I didn’t admit my envy. I lived out their Facebook vacation travel panoramas and dining extravaganzas with a mix of happiness for them and their lovers and still a fair amount of regret that my life had taken a different path far down the ladder.
But I can’t lie about the fact that I was yet pretty content. My happiness had been achieved largely through having lost everything to drugs and in the recovery process, having gained a self-respect for things I had found will matter most of all in the end. Yes, I would have rather been pondering this truth over a steak dinner on a Greek island than with a bowl of mac n cheese on the run in a 23,000 square foot campus. But I learned that contentment is not always the consolation prize for happiness lost. Contentment trumps happiness every hand because it is an intrinsic, self-reliant condition of the heart that depends on no circumstance. It is solely dependent on character.
Respect is like humility in reverse. When you’ve learned to be humble despite your place in life, your ability over a lifetime to respect those in similar situations naturally increases. You know what it’s like to have been there. It’s called empathy.
During my 9 months as a janitor, the most meaningful moments had been at the hands of strangers. The brief pause of a stranger who knows what it’s like to be taken for granted can move you from invisible to visible in a single stroke. “I appreciate what you do, thank you.”
At the church where I worked, I sat down for a bagel and a cup of coffee and calculated what all went into making the Sunday morning experience. There was a premium effort to make a seamless hour-long event for those who come seeking something more to life. Behind the scenes, it is the culmination of hundreds of hours each week by staff and volunteers who endeavor to foresee every possible detail as if were the very last Sunday on earth in which someone might come to realize there is more to life. All efforts are meaningful, interconnected, synchronized events oftentimes dependent upon the success of one another like the gears of a fine timepiece. The feat is truly an incredible one but in large part, invisible to most. In this effort, there is no strata, no status, no rungs on the ladder. The endeavor is much too important for personalities to get caught up in such posturing. Because everyone matters. And so did I.
I learned that the people who have set their sights on things much bigger than themselves and issues of profound importance, like ants in an anthill, the effort eradicates class lines. Respect, empathy and valuation of the person–not position–prevails.
A job well done is its own reward.
My parents taught me well. I learned to work a $5/hour job as if it was a $50/hour job and that someday it would be and my efforts would be rewarded, if not only by my own conscience. Paychecks are necessary, but conscience is vital. And doing a job well isn’t entirely a money thing.
I recall a study in which employees of several different companies were surveyed and asked to make a choice between a)receiving a small raise and b)receiving a genuine compliment from the boss on a piece of work they did. The result was surprisingly and overwhelmingly for the latter. Conscience-driven people create meaning in even the lowest of positions and in doing so, elevate that job to a place of importance for themselves and those around them it might not have earned otherwise. Pride in performance is a currency which eventually cashes a bigger paycheck if you are thankful to just be working.
Bloom where you’re planted for now.
Apart from things like knowing the staff’s snack habits through the emptying of their office trashes, their pooping schedules and various hygienes, as a general rule, being a janitor was not so bad. It’s a physical job with lots of dirt, sweat and germs you can wash off with a hot shower or a licking frenzy from your best friend when you come home through the door after a long day.
Some say I’ve had a tough life. But a tough life is being a child sold as a sex slave to support a parent’s drug habit. A tough life is in a plentiful world, foraging for food, water and a place to lay your head. My own mistakes brought me to the place I was at, the bottom rung with a master’s degree at 53 years old where the shit that rolled downhill literally fell into my lap and I still smiled and said thank you. Because as a janitor, I learned work isn’t just a job, a paycheck or a position. Sometimes it’s about accepting the roll of the dice and staying in the game.