Dr. Dolittle had a creature that made him a lot of money, a pushmi-pullyu. This creature had two heads and two front bodies. The benefit was, the animal cold both eat and talk at the same time. The drawback was, it couldn’t decide which direction it wanted to go. No matter where it went, half of it was uncomfortable walking backwards. Therefore, it spent most of its time standing in one place. But that creature, on display, was a source of some pretty good income for Dr. Dolittle.
I have felt kind of the same way most of my life. Not the Dr. Dolittle way,exploiting outlandish creatures for profit. No, I have felt more like the pushmi-pullyu, forever trapped between coming and going, and watching others profit from my efforts.
There is a battle inside me. Dramatic? Probably. True? Definitely. I want opposite things in life. I want adventure and I want stability. The adventure side of me wants to travel, write, take chances, jump off cliffs (well, maybe not THAT one), etc. The stability side of me wants a 9-5 job, paycheck every 2 weeks, and the ability to know what’s going to happen next week, next month, next year.
Now, some people do have both. They have a steady job that pays well enough so they can vacation and travel and jump off cliffs. They can pay their bills without worry and can spend their free time being adventurous. They can take chances in their work because they are secure in their profession. They enjoy their profession, and therefore have the emotional energy to pursue other passions in their downtime.
I would say not many people have both, but they do exist.
Far more people have the stability. They have a regular job with regular pay and they go to work five days a week to pay the bills. They spend their downtime “recovering” from drudgery. They go on vacation once or twice a year to escape their regular life.
Some people have the adventure. They travel, they backpack, they scuba-dive – all over the world. They don’t have 9-5 jobs, and their income is either based on the results of their adventures, or (more likely) they have some family money behind them and can afford to live without a steady paycheck.
Of course, then there are the majority of us. We don’t have “good” jobs. We struggle every month to pay the bills. Our life is a never-ending series of adventures in poverty. We take chances by playing the lottery, spend our tax returns on frivolous enjoyment, and continually make choices that keep us in the hamster wheel of the service class. And for most of us, we stay in that wheel our entire lives. So, what does all of this have to do with a fictional creature in a children’s book?
We all have within us a duality. A sense of conflict between doing what we think we want and doing what we think we should. Most people go their entire life with this feeling just a slow burn of small dissatisfactions. Perhaps they act out as teenagers, but eventually settle down. Perhaps they blow-out with a mid-life crisis, but then meekly put the pieces back together.
Some people just never settle down. They never lose the strong sense that there is something else they should be doing, some greater cause to pursue. A very few reach great heights because of family circumstance, good choices made with good guidance, or luck. The rest of that group tends to stay in low-paying jobs because those are the jobs that don’t tie you down.
Not everyone who flips hamburgers is an adventurer at heart, but I’d bet serious money there are more would-be adventurers selling you your morning coffee than doing your taxes.
Me? I’m spectacularly good at making no money. I rise to the top of every low-level job I take, because I am driven, ambitious, conscientious, polite and service oriented. I am the “lead”, the “shift manager”. I am the “boss”, who isn’t really, ever, the boss. The service industry loves my type of worker, and I have always increased my employer’s profits. But I’ve never made anything close to a comfortable wage for myself.
I have been termed “underemployed” because I have a vast skill set, yet little to show for it. I have no degree, but have taken classes in nearly every discipline. I have aced creative writing, trigonometry, psychology and anatomy & physiology. I have tutored students who have gone on to good jobs with good money.
I have traveled and lived in much of the US and in Europe. I have been asked to speak at conferences all over the world. I am published. I have been front-page news in my local newspaper and middle-ish news in the Wall Street Journal. I have an outlandish CV.
And yet, I work in a service industry job in a health care facility. I can’t pay my bills with the paycheck I make. I am exhausted at the end of each shift I work, and I can barely muster the energy to write a grocery list on weekends, let alone anything else.
I know I’m not alone. I know there are many, many people like me who have tasted what it’s like to live a life of grand adventure, but who seem stuck in the mire of poverty.
I don’t have the answer, because if I did, I would act. It’s not college. I’ve tried that. I love school. But I have never been able to “nail down” a major, something I can see myself doing for “the rest of my life”. It’s not about taking chances. I’ve done that. I’ve lept off the cliff and soared for a while, before both my life and I came crashing down. Is it laziness? I don’t know. I work 50+ hours a week, on my feet. If I were lazy, would I be able to do that? Is it mental illness? I seriously ask because I think it might be a little bit of depression and anxiety that holds me back. I think there is a lot of truth in the last one.
Which brings me to Dr. Dolittle and his pushmi-pullyu. I want to break out and do great things, but I want to stay safe and small, too. I haven’t been able to keep going in one direction before my other half takes over and drags me back. I haven’t stood still, far from it. But I seem to end up in the same place, regardless of how far or how long I run.
The funny thing is, I’ve never liked the Dr. Dolittle books. Never. Even as a little kid with a voracious reading appetite, I just didn’t like them. And the character I hated the most? Shocker: the pushmi-pullyu.
What does it all mean? I’m as interested in the answer as anyone else.