I still have a job, but I've completely stopped working!

I know I should probably do something. But I don't.

Published April 10, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have just stopped doing my job, and no one seems to care.

I won't say exactly what my job is, but I had a big project that I worked on for nine months and then just couldn't finish. It has been given to someone else, and now I'm looking at some other things I was assigned, but not really doing them.

I feel terribly guilty for not pulling my weight, but not guilty enough to do anything.

I have some qualms -- ethical qualms -- about the place I work, and I've wanted to leave for a while now. So why am I still here?

Well, a couple of reasons:

1. I actually left once, found myself unemployed, asked for my old job back, and got it, so I feel I could hardly make such waves again.

2. The people here are my friends, and leaving your friends is a lot harder and more complicated than just leaving your co-workers. But I never do any work!

I'm writing you in the hope that you will prescribe some action -- something. I do not have the best attention span and may have some kind of ADD thing, but I also know I can focus when I really want to do something. So what I need is some words that get through to me, followed by some suggestion for action, even if the action is as simple as "stop writing to advice columnists."

Out of Order

Dear Out of Order,

I read your letter quickly and thought about your situation all evening. I went to sleep and dreamed about a giant factory. When I awoke I wrote the following. Only after writing it did I read your letter a second time and truly hear your plea for clear instructions to take some kind of action. I'm sorry if what I have written does not help. I work from the imagination.

If you would like to correspond with me privately, perhaps I can suggest something concrete to get you going again. I do have a practical side. But bear in mind, I'm a guy who, like you, once stopped working and kept all his mail in a big cardboard box under his desk. So I might not be the ideal advisor for this situation.

Indeed sometimes in the working life we find that we are nothing more than cogs in a giant machine. And like cogs, for no apparent reason, we stop working. This baffles us at first: We have stopped working! But we do not immediately report ourselves. To do so seems absurd. We think we will start working again soon, any day now. Why should we report ourselves, when any day now we will probably start working again?!

But weeks go by, months go by, and we're still not working! What is the matter with us? And why has no one noticed? Here we sit in a far, dark corner of the engine, idling day after day. You'd think someone would notice!

The ethical thing is to turn yourself in. Go to someone in a position of power and say, "Sir! I'm not working!" But the ethical thing is not always the interesting thing. The interesting thing is to see how long you can go.

When a cog stops working, if the machine is small, the machine may stop working too. When the machine stops working, the hood will be raised and knowing mechanics will lean down and put their faces close to the machine to look at the belts, the vacuum system, the seals.

But if a machine is very large, your function might not be missed for a long time. If you are but a cog in a cog in a cog, and that cog is but a minor cog in a giant cog that itself is simply part of an even gianter cog that itself could be said to be an entity, if a minor one, that ultimately reports to the machine itself, then it is possible that this could go on for years. When machines become very large, some of what they do is superfluous and will not be missed by anyone.

But even so, why do we suddenly stop working? Sometimes it is because some essential linkage to us has broken or worn down; the cam that was to prod us into movement no longer brushes against us, and so we come to a slow halt, and freeze, and find to our amazement that as the rest of the engine hums with admirable harmony, we sit quietly, doing nothing, untouched, unsupervised. Or it may be that rather than a physical cam or rod that no longer prods us, it was a link of information that has decayed, so that we are no longer receiving instructions. Again, in the lack of instructions, we simply stop working. Or we may be receiving instructions, but in Mandarin. We do not speak Mandarin. How odd. But we wait. We wait for better instructions. Or the instructions may be in our native language but indecipherable, written by another cog who was daydreaming.

So we simply stop working. Those adjacent may be too busy to notice that we have grown quiet and still. In fact, because the machine was poorly designed, it may turn out that the machine works better when we do nothing! Everything works perfectly and our function is not missed!

It may be disturbing to see everything proceeding along quite beautifully without us. Is this what it is like to be dead? When we are dead, is this how the world will proceed? Do we need to function, and have our function noticed, in order to feel alive?

But we are alive already! Why should we need to function to feel alive?

Thus the thinking cog -- an anomaly in itself, to be sure -- is faced with a decision. If we stay in the engine, quietly doing nothing, we might continue to enjoy the benefits -- the warmth, the regularity of the engine starting up at the same time every day and turning off at the same time, the resources directed our way in the form of fuel and gases and incidental bits of information, the strangely reassuring feeling of simply being in the engine, being a part of something, even if we ourselves contribute nothing. There is the extra heat thrown off by the other functioning parts, and the satisfaction we gain from watching the rest of the thing work.

But there will be the knowledge of the contradiction: We are not doing what we were installed to do. And we do not feel alive.

There is this to consider also: There may be cogs around us that have also stopped working, and which emit unpleasant gases undetected by the sensors. The whole thing may begin to disgust us.

If it is boring and unpleasant, and we are not really contributing anything, maybe we should leave. If only it were that simple! If only we could just leave! But we feel tied to it! We are used to it! We have adjusted ourselves to the schedule of the machine! The machine's sounds strangely warm our hearts. We have even grown fond of some of its other parts, who hum along while we, quietly disconnected, sit idle.

It is a tough choice. What you risk, if you decide to stay, is that one day you will be discovered, and then you will be ripped out with cold and brusque disregard, and you will regret not having left under your own power when you had the chance. You will be torn out, torched out, broken off, discarded abruptly and with contempt, even anger: Why has this part stopped working! How long has it not been working! How stupid could we be! Look at this! What's wrong with it? It's simply been disconnected and we didn't see it for years! Jesus, look how much fuel it's consumed! Fuck! And they get rid of you. Well, at least it's fixed now. Jesus!

You don't want that to happen. Nothing you can say at that point will change anything. You try to explain but they don't hear you. It's unsettling. Maybe they just get rid of you. Or maybe they ask you questions out of baffled curiosity: How could you just sit there all this time doing nothing? Why didn't you say something? And you try to explain but you find all you can do is shrug! Yes, it's quite embarrassing.

If that happens, it might take a while to get over. Because they will look at you in amazement: How long could this cog have been broken like that and we never knew! It never made a sound! You'd think it would rattle, or smoke, or you'd see something on the readout!

Yeah, that's the thing. When they finally find you, they get angry, as if you'd personally insulted them. Only later do they think about why it happened, about the bad design. The officials mark you with an X and the other machines notice the mark in your documentation. Because of this, no other machine in the system wants you.

But what if you have decided to leave but it's taking a long time to actually get out of the plant? Say you manage to decouple yourself and drop to the floor and are inching out the door and one day someone comes along who is expert and observant and is accustomed to working only with new, completely functioning models, and he notices that you're gone. Or someone comes along who has occupied the exact same place as you in a similar machine, and he notices that you're gone. And he says, Where is that cog? And they say, There's a cog? And he says, Yeah, right there, there's a cog there. See that little strip? See the plug? See the rod, the flange, the threads? There's a cog there! But it's not there? We don't know, they say. Can't remember if there ever was one. Maybe it's on the floor. And they go about looking on the floor and if you haven't gotten away, they find you, and they put you back in, and they hook you up and you're working again.

And then you wonder if you're happier now or if you were happier before.

Much of this has to do with the cog itself. The cog has choices. What does the cog want? Does the cog want to stay and keep working? If so, there are many ways the cog can signal its malfunction by smoking, or rattling, or making a high-pitched screeching sound.

Do you want to be hooked back up? If so, make some noise.

If not, just quietly unscrew yourself.

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