An employer once told me that I don’t ‘sell myself’ enough, to which I replied that I don’t sell myself at all. Of practical necessity my labour is available for hire for around forty hours a week: the best hours of my life, the hours that run on to my grave. But I am most definitely not for sale. They can buy the outward, resentful movements of my body but my mind remains my own private kingdom.
There is, in fact, a perfectly good word in the English language for people who sell themselves: prostitutes. Of course I’m not naïve about this. I’m aware that the world is full of prostitutes, hypocrites, and bullshitters, and that they are the ones who tend to get the outward signs of success. And I’m aware that there’ll never be a shortage of corporate whores willing to demean themselves in any way for the next pay rise, the next promotion, or a flattering glance from the boss. There should be a sign on the wall: Welcome to the workplace. Please hang up your self-respect at the door.
The only thing that makes work bearable for me is my utter refusal to play the game and my open contempt for those who do. Needless to say, I’m low paid, unpopular, taken for a fool, and constantly teetering on the edge of resignation or dismissal. I consider these things to be badges of honour. When the whole insane, deluded world is against you then you know that you must be doing something right.
As a society we talk proudly of our democratic rights and yet we allow the workplace to be run as a dictatorship, where management is king and the workers are slaves. We squabble over consumer goods while around the world millions of our fellow human beings live in squalor, starve, or die of preventable diseases. We sleepwalk towards death. Decide for yourself whether it’s me, the lone malcontent, or the rest of the world that’s deluded.
Do you remember the old self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People? I dream of writing a book called How to do the Right Thing and not give a Damn what Anyone Else Thinks. And more importantly I dream of living up to that title. That’s my life project. That’s my burning ambition.
I can just imagine what Epictetus would say to all my whining and posturing. ‘Do you really want these things? Well, what are you waiting for? Nothing is stopping you from being good, happy and free. All you need to do is ignore the opinions of others and act in accordance with your principles. If this is compatible with life then live it. If not then you know the way out.’
Sadly I’m not a stoic sage, not an Epictetus, a Diogenes or a Socrates. I’m too attached to my stupid little life, too attached to my homely comforts, and so I go on muddling through as best I can, resenting the world for its cruelty and myself for my lack of courage. In fact I suppose I’m more of an Epicurean than a stoic. I can’t stand the pace of the world and so I seek to escape from it, into simple pleasures, rather than taking a heroic stand for my principles.
But that’s still a lot better than doing what everyone else does, better than waiting to be told what I should do with my life, better than joining the desperate competition for a few crumbs tossed from the table of the rich and powerful, better than striving to impress others at any cost. Insofar as I live content with the consequences of my actions, accepting the loneliness and isolation that they bring, I suppose there is a little of the stoic in me after all. So I’m lonely then – but am I a philosopher? Dare I claim so grand a name? I think Epictetus should have the final word:
‘If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realise that you have compromised your integrity. So be satisfied just being a philosopher, and if you need a witness in addition, be your own; and you will be all the witness you could desire.’