In the fall of 2016, I left a job I had held for over 30 years. There were a number of reasons, but a big one was the election. After Trump won, a lot of people were in shock. Someone told me that they had called HR to say that one of their employees had to take some Short Term Disability to check into a mental health facility. Apparently HR replied that this was the third disability call that week for the same reason.
My reaction wasn’t quite that strong, but I do remember thinking, “This is going to be really stressful. I don’t think I can deal. I may need to leave my job.”
Work, for many of us, is an immersive experience. You enter the door of your office – or now, perch on the edge of your couch or push the breakfast dishes aside, and don your noise-cancelling headphones – or put on your apron and name badge and logo’d face mask, and enter an experience where you are focused on something, on a task, on serving the people you come into contact with, and the outside world disappears until the end of your shift. Even if you work in News, I suspect you are so busy producing the news that the news itself is just an object that is moved around, sliced, diced, and served up. When you get home, maybe during your commute, or if you sit with a newspaper or skim your usual newsfeed online or on TV, then you hear about the events of the day.
In the fall of 2016, I looked at the lies, the distortions, the finger-pointing, the demeaning nicknames, the bullying, the delays, the distractions, the bad decisions that were presented as good decisions. I saw how people around him, people who had seemed to be grownups until that time, let him get away with things, how they didn’t protect those who were vulnerable, how they let him destroy something that we all believed in. And I knew that the next four years would require every ounce of tolerance that I had in me. And I knew that I couldn’t, at the same time, deal with a person at work who was exactly the same way – and who bamboozled everyone around her the same way – and would require the same level of tolerance, at the same time.
When I left, this wasn’t the only reason, but it was a conscious factor.
Scientific studies have shown that people have a limited capacity for self-discipline. Every piece of french toast that you resist at breakfast makes you less able to resist cookies in the afternoon. I think the same thing is true about tolerance. You can tolerate things at work but if you also have to tolerate similar things outside of work, you are going to reach your limit quickly.
It’s part of the reason that everyone is struggling now: people are fed up with all the little indignities, all the little stressors, and are unable to maintain the level of self-discipline to stay masked, to stay 6 feet away from others, to wash their hands yet again and yet again and yet again. Those of us who are able to do it, are giving ourselves slack in other ways – letting ourselves eat those cookies, watch yet another YouTube Video or bad movie on TV, skip yet another day of exercise.
You can say we need the fortitude of the people who lived through WWII. But the truth is, when things were bad, they had each other. In London, people gathered together in the Underground or ran bomb drills. In the US, people ran war bond rallies and practiced first aid on each other, grew victory gardens together. One of the hardest things about this is the social isolation. Spending time with friends on Zoom calls is better than nothing, but it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.
We are all being asked now to pass the marshmallow test. In this test, the scientist put a plate in front of a little kid with a marshmallow on it and promised the kid if they could resist eating the marshmallow until the scientist returned a few minutes later, they would receive a second marshmallow. And then the scientist left the room. For a few minutes, which feels like forever to a little kid. And most kids ate the marshmallow.
If we want things to get back to whatever the new normal is, we can’t eat our marshmallows. We must resist until the scientist returns.
And then we can eat two.
Yeah, that’s a nice line and I was going to leave it there.
But the truth is that many people don’t have even one marshmallow in their life. Literally, they work two jobs or three jobs, and can barely make ends meet. They are discriminated against at work, when they look for a home, when they want to vote, want to put their kids in school, need to go to the doctor, think about retirement, and all they want is pursuit of happiness that America promised. Think about the tolerance they have to use up every day. They don’t have the luxury of staying home, staying safe, and they don’t have a safety-net when things change around them. A missed paycheck means no food on the table, eviction, homelessness, rejection.
When you meditate, reflect on them with empathy.
And, in the fall, vote. Vote for a better world. A world where children aren’t ripped from their parents’ arms and thrown into cages. A world where grown ups do what needs to be done instead of lying that it doesn’t need to be done. A world where we come together to make the world a better place instead of bragging that we’ve already done it.
A world where we can use our tolerance to wait for marshmallows.