Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Sense of Purpose

No one joins the Navy for the time off. I like a 4-day weekend as much as anyone, but it isn't why I joined and it would never keep me in. And I'm not alone. No sailor can be bought with time off or with promotions or pay-raise matrices or with end-of-tour awards or with the Navy's newest brain child, the 4-day work week.

I joined because in 2003 the Iraq war looked virtuous. I was intoxicated from my poli-sci texts and my grandfather's stories. I may have also watched too many commercials. The point is I wanted to participate. To participate in something specific, but really in something larger than myself, to have the opportunity to be a part of something great, to lever my labor on the fulcrum of United States Naval power. This is what I imagined and what nearly everyone that eventually finds themselves in blues has at some point imagined.

Why then all the gimmicks? A bored sailor is an unhappy sailor, but not necessarily an articulate one. So, that unhappiness is communicated as underpaid or overworked or unrecognized. Pay, time off and weekends go a long way, but it isn't what a sailor needs, what anyone needs. A person needs to be useful, to have a sense of purpose. They need to see their work amount to something.

My first real job was at a bike shop in Dallas. After reorganizing the warehouse I was handed a pad of steel wool and shown a pile of rusted old Schwinns. As tedious as it was to steel wool those old bikes, I felt pride in the gleam of the restored chrome. I'd fixed something broken, made it beautiful again. It was very easy to see the results of my labor, and I was proud of those results.

Now, it is much more difficult to see the results of my labor. I create spreadsheets, expense reports, cost justifications, conduct research. It's much less clear what of my work contributes to anything at all. And when it is clear to what my labor contributes, without getting too much into politics, I'm not terribly proud of the results. 

For a person in my situation, task saturated and disillusioned, pay raises and awards engender guilt or embarassment as much as anything else. It reminds me of something my Chief told me the other day. He'd just returned from the desert where we maintain a permanent detachment. Most of our personnel there stay in a five-star hotel with leather couches, king-size beds and flat screen tvs. Despite enjoying the work he was doing out there, for weeks he was ashamed to tell his family about where he'd been living. He didn't want to replace the image they had of him as sacrificing for his country with one from MTV Cribs. 

And I think this concern is universal. We want good pay, but only in return for good work.