Desperately seeking security
Why your reptile brain needs to chill the fuck out
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I hope your 2022 is off to a reasonable start (and, if not, you can always go by lunar new year instead - the year of the tiger has only just begun).
This month I have been thinking a lot about security, and the reptile part of my brain that’s constantly screaming ‘UNSAFE!!!’ about my work practice. He’s keen that I should settle for a job - any job - with regular hours. But he’s also a tool. Some months it’s easier to shut him down than others.
I’ve been reading Matrix, by Lauren Groff, which is a great novel about 12th century nuns (more specifically about real-life poet Marie de France). I started reading it thinking it would put things in perspective - as you might imagine, living conditions back then were less than ideal. Strange diseases sweep through the abbey carrying off many of the poor sisters, while freak accidents or even a rat bite see to others. Hygiene is patchy, as is dentistry, and food is often scarce (true ‘seasonal eating’ is rather limited in this country). I don’t enjoy being cold or hungry, or, for that matter, following rules. Without any religious conviction, it seems likely I would be a poor candidate for a nun, in any era.
But something strange happened about halfway through the book. I slowly turned from pity to… not exactly envy, but something like it. I imagined a simple world in which I had my daily duties mapped out. Perhaps I would tend to the beehives, livestock or transcribing manuscripts (even in a fantasy I know I would be dead wood in the kitchen).
Days would be repetitive, sure, but I could lose myself in the beauty of ritual, in the minute changes of the seasons and the meditative actions that – when added to those of others – created a community, a shared, simple life.
I am self-aware enough to know that this isn’t a true desire. I am ambitious, hungry for new experiences and connections (and, you know, actual food too), with a very low tolerance for boredom. I can’t even cope with that common suggestion that writers should keep some things the same – lunches, for example, or wardrobe choices – in order to stimulate creativity. I genuinely start to feel nauseous if I eat the same meal too many times (gosh, what a precious princess I am – you can see that a nunnery might lovingly reject an application).
So what is my strange bee-keeping-nun fantasy really pointing to? That’s simple: it’s the idea of security. Some days I would like to wake up and just get on with my job. To just crack on with something – ideally physical – without the thought hanging over me: what if this all ends tomorrow?
Even if I’m not consciously thinking it, it’s always hovering in the background. It’s exhausting. It is, of course, tempting to blame self-employment for this precarious feeling – and certainly capitalism would love us to believe that putting in a daily grind for a company is the root of security. But in my experience, that’s never been the case. In my employed years I’ve been threatened – whether overtly or not – with redundancy in three separate roles (it finally caught up with me in the third).
Of course you might say: ‘what did you expect, going into journalism in a recession, dummy?’ But more than half of my non-journo friends have been made redundant in the last five years, from a range of professions (including a lawyer, FFS). I can’t decide if it’s purely depressing, or perhaps tinged with a crumb of solace. After all, it helps me feel it wasn’t just a bad decision on my part: hardly any careers seem secure these days.
In between first drafting this email and sending it out, it looks like I may be losing my biggest piece of regular work. There have been dreaded ‘restructures’ at the company I rely on for some of my bread-and-butter money, and it’s all up in the air as to whether they’ll still need me, or whether I’ll need to find something else. I won’t lie, it’s been stressful (not to mention awful for my poor friends within the company).
It’s reminded me of when I was made redundant, and the weird panic-spiral that sent me into. I was grasping around for anything, applying for jobs I was wildly over qualified for, and accepting commissions with crap pay that left me exhausted. It took a few months to realise: you know what? I have a lot of value. I’m good at what I do, and should be paid accordingly - and there are people prepared to do that.
If this work falls apart, as is looking increasingly likely, the main thing is not to cave into my lizard brain again. I’m still earning enough for now, still working on my beloved book idea, and still walking and reading and sleeping and spending time with my husband and kitten… Things are, for now, the same. I am also putting some of the effort from last month’s letter into action, and manifesting. I won’t be rushing headlong into a bad deal with a company I’m ill-suited to. I will be taking a deep breath, looking at my options, and opening my eyes to possible pieces of work that might gel well.
When it comes to the feeling of security - which is often removed from the reality of it - here’s what helps me.
Firstly, as I’ve said before, when you work for yourself: no one can fire you. I think about that a lot. You can have a bad day and not make any money, or you can lose a contract or customer you relied on (hello!) but there are always other options. You, and I, are resourceful creatures. We are wily, we are outside of the system, and people in power don’t really want us to exist. Yet, here we are. Persevering.
Career security, especially at the moment, feels to me like a myth for anybody, but what we have is a bigger set of tools in our toolboxes than many in traditional employment.
One unrelated thing that helps me when I feel that panic, as alluded to in my pastoral fantasies, is getting out into nature. Noticing that everything is constantly in a state of change is deeply soothing. If I walk the same route every day, more or less, the temperatures and quality of light varies and I see different birds, yet some things remain constant. The river is always to my right, the tree-lined avenue blocks out the sun, whether with leaves or bare branches. Everything is the same, yet nothing is the same.
And one more thing that the nuns had right: community. Feeling part of a bigger network is crucial when I’m caught in a panic spiral. The monthly accountability sessions I run through this newsletter are a safe haven, where we can share these thoughts and fears (both rational and irrational) and ask for advice or solidarity. If you’d like to join us for the next one (last Friday of the month, 11am) just reply to this letter.
I’d also love to know whether you feel security panic, and how you cope with it.