On guilt


Tuesday 30 September 2014

Anthony Powell once went through a spell of writer’s block that lasted over a decade. During that time he kept a journal so that his mind was fresh for when a good idea finally bloomed. Deeming an idea to be good is extremely subjective, especially after having written A Dance to the Music of Time. If A Dance to the Music of Time is your good then ‘good’ is, in fact, ‘extraordinary’. It is no wonder that Powell did not write anything which he considered up to his high standards again. Admittedly his journals are revealing and very entertaining, but that is solely because they are journals emanating from the mind that produced a masterpiece.

A Dance to the Music of Time
Powell’s Masterpiece: the twelve-volume work, A Dance to the Music of Time.

I’ve got writer’s block. I’m not Powell. I’ve not written anything worth mentioning in the same conversation (let alone breath) as A Dance to the Music of Time. This blog is my attempt to work out my problems. At the moment I can’t focus on an idea for long enough to comprehend it, still less write an essay. Essaying to any length has become more and more difficult because the groundwork which needs to be done to complete such a task is perceived – by me, it should be added, not others – as a waste of time. I consider researching to be time that I could spend on hunting for a job. The guilt and the pressure which comes from not having a job is so immense that I cannot endeavour to understand any topic because my mind believes it to be an unworthy way of spending an hour. If I begin, guilt washes over me:

“Why are you not on Reed? Or Indeed? Or Monster? Or touching up your CV? You haven’t applied for a single job today. Here you go, have an insane amount of guilt thrown upon you for even wanting to do that thing which is not job hunting. You don’t have a job. You are a moocher. You are unemployed. You live off of others. You live off of others and have nothing to show for it. You should be ashamed of yourself. Have some more guilt and depression to go with what you are already feeling.”

And that’s a good day. Things which are rather essential – such as eating or sleeping – are framed anew as time-wasting: excuses for not job hunting. Having lunch is reduced to the same level as, say, playing a computer game for an hour. I know that job hunting 24/7 would depress me more than words can say, but so does not job hunting 24/7.

Today I have sent a copy of my CV to my aunt and uncle for revision, I have written a letter to a friend to accompany a book that I am sending him, I have read passages from the Book of Joshua in the King James Bible, and I have job hunted. Yet, I have nothing tangible to show for it, so to my mind I may as well not have tried.

I should now be able to go and read some more, to learn, to enhance my life without the gnawing feeling of guilt beginning in my chest, feeling like it is trying to escape. Even writing this piece is difficult. I am literally – and I use that word correctly here – I am literally fighting the urge to close this and cry. Problems and issues swill and circulate through my mind clouding out the things that I wish to focus on. I want this piece to have a central focus, a thesis, something someone can relate to, but I can’t stay focused. What was I writing about a second ago? I can’t remember; probably guilt, because it’s always there. Where does it begin? I don’t know, because it is there all the time. I’m off to play hockey this evening. It’s a training session. Throughout the whole session I will feel guilty. Why? Well, because I don’t have a job. Isn’t that sad? Clearly I feel like this guilty weight will be lifted when I am employed. It’s so fickle, and likely so wrong. Living constantly with this feeling in my chest is a bane. It is my Sisyphean rock.

Life is short. We are told that often. Life is short so do what you want, get what you want, have what you want. Not a great starting point, it is solipsistic, but let’s continue: What is it that I want? Currently, it is agency. I want a status, a position, a role. I am unemployed.  That is what defines me, or at least it is what I feel defines me. Some of this guilt comes from my own ignorance. I used to think that people who were unemployed were just not trying hard enough. How conservative is that!?! (I also thought that I was employable because I had a Master’s degree, and that I would roll out of university into a market of recruiters clamouring for me to work for their firm.) So, because I used to think that the unemployed are lazy when I had a role in society (as a student), I now believe that others think that way and that they perceive me to be unemployed because I am lazy or – worse – because I want to be. This could not be further from the truth. I want to be employed, to be a writer, to be writing for a living, doing this, getting paid for this, being given a penny for my thoughts. But all of that looks so far away. I have no direct plan about how to get there. Many writers that I revere have a PhD… Does that mean I need one too? On the other hand, some don’t; however, they are immensely talented and went to Oxbridge or an Ivy League college. So have I fallen behind by not being exceptional or a doctor by 25 years of age? Are some doors closed to me? Are all of the doors closed to me? It feels that way.

Some of this guilt also comes from not knowing what I want out of my life. Writing is a vehicle for me to understand what I perceive to be the big issues in the world. I study. I understand. I clear my thoughts. I write my opinion. It’s a great way – the best way – for me to understand and focus. Politics, history, literature, religion, sport; anything can be understood through this method if given enough time. If I was getting paid for doing that, then I would have more time to dedicate to understanding things. Okay, so, to what end? Why do I want to learn and write about what I have learnt? I don’t believe in the cliché that I can change the world. So, why? Maybe to enhance the lives of others around me, to help? To have topics to talk to others about? To enhance conversation and my speech? I don’t know, but I feel like it is important. And I feel like I would be losing something if I didn’t endeavour to follow it.

Anthony Powell
Anthony Powell in 1978, three years after the final volume of ‘A Dance’ had been published.

I wonder whether any of that guilt comes from the feeling that there is a pendulum constantly swinging above my head. I am getting older, that won’t stop, so I need to learn about things now and act on love now and have children now. But I can’t have children because I’m not married and I can’t get married because I don’t have a job – those are my mental barriers. And they are mine: so I am ruining my partner’s life because I don’t have a job. And I am not living up to what people expect of me because I don’t have a job. I feel like I am nothing because I don’t have a status or a title.

The guilt of feeling like I am not doing anything is deep-set. The guilt appears to have seeped into every aspect of my being. It is my new identity, my new status, my new title. I want to show others that I am feeling guilty about not having a job in the hope that they don’t consider me lazy or unemployable. I act as if debilitated with guilt so that they will not think worse of me; however, it is not an act.

So, what am I? I am not Powell, I have not written a masterpiece, I am unemployed. I don’t like being unemployed, but that is what I am. For the moment, it defines me and my being. One day it will cease, and I will start to think about something else, but until then I need to use this junk energy for something positive, even if it is as small and as personal as this blog.