I did not get hired. Moping with disappointment back in my old job, I asked some senior people if that might have been because of my age. Though age discrimination is not allowed under the Canadian Human Rights Act, I knew that what happens in fact often flies in the face of what is not allowed by law. Everybody I asked insisted that such things did not happen in their company.
More than six months later, the people who had interviewed me were in Ottawa. The Calgary office had been closed down and they were all shopping around for new jobs.
My heart had sunk when I lost the job and the promotion, but that feeling was replaced by relief. Same incident, different perspective. It had been devastating for me to fly west only to lose the opportunity for a new position; but what had been a crushing disappointment could have instead made me share the awful fate of the people who later had to salvage their own careers.
Government work is encountered by normal people only when they fall into the gears of bureaucracy, ensnared by tax people or bored enforcers of regulations. For many people who live in a place like Ottawa, people who can end up on the comfortable side of the desk, finding that work can feel like a reward, even a sinecure. Get your foot in the door, the saying goes, and you’re set for life. But it’s an uncertain existence.
I last worked in a government office in 1998. Yesterday I agreed to do it again for the next couple of months. The opportunity came thanks to a friend — a man who has been an angel in my life, coming to my rescue a number of times. He is in a position to recommend me for the unusual kind of work I do when his colleagues do not know where to find me.
Though I am grateful that some people think I am still worth hiring, and especially happy to have a steady income for a few weeks, I am approaching this work warily. The main reason is that I treasure the things I must now relinquish for money: time, leisure, freedom of movement.
Another reason also underlies my reticence. I firmly believe the ancient talmudic wisdom that says, “Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress.” There’s the uncertainty of the life, which is just as true today as it was in the time of the Romans who inspired this warning.
I have satisfied many government clients, but almost none of them ever called me back when the work was done. It has always made me wonder how much anybody really cared about what I did.
The first time I worked for the Canadian government I was impressed by a man who used to handle complaints from citizens. Stuck to his telephone was a conspicuous note that he would see every time he talked to the public. It said “It’s only a job.”
I have always favored jobs that are more than just a job, the kinds of work that influence the everyday lives of others, fields such as cultural affairs and health.
I will now be working on public service policy. Does anybody outside government even understand those words?
Many people, even in recent weeks, have told me that it is worth giving up time, leisure, and freedom for money. I do not believe it. These are the things that commonly define retirement; to me they are empty unless they are filled with meaningful and useful activities.
The question is how meaningful and useful my next few weeks will be. My biggest challenge will be to find real significance in my time on the job.