Thoughts Akimbo

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Chains bind elephants, us

My friend hated his job so much, he switched to part time. Then he dropped down to just two shifts a week. And now he hates it even more.

But I can’t leave, he told me, because they’re paying me so much money for so little time! It feels really great to see that money piling up in the bank.

Don’t you need that money for necessities? I asked.

Oh, no. With my wife’s income and our investments, we make plenty to keep afloat. And of course, our retirement accounts are pretty plump. But I don’t feel I can retire NOW. Not when they’re willing to pay me all that money to do almost nothing …

I’ve heard of “Golden Handcuffs” – being stuck in a job you hate just because you can’t make as much money anywhere else. But my friend has something different. I call it an “Elephant Bracelet.”

When young elephants are trained, they’re chained by one leg to a post, to keep them from wandering off every night. After a few years, they’d be strong enough to break the flimsy chain, but they don’t, because they’re used to it. By the time they’re adults, they don’t need to be chained to anything. They just wear a chain as a bracelet, and it makes them want to stand by the post every night, as if they were bound to it.

My friend had never heard of this, but he did tell me a similar story about house flies. Apparently, if you keep a house fly in a large, empty pickle jar, after three days you can remove the lid and the fly will not leave. By then, it’s hit its head on the jar lid so many times, it knows better than to even try to fly upward.

In essence, the fly is wearing an elephant bracelet. Although, of course, the size would be all wrong.

I asked my friend what he did in his five days off each week, and he told me what I’d feared: he spends them dreading the upcoming two-day shift. So that job’s not really taking up just two days a week. It’s ruining all seven.

Then I asked him what he would like to do, if he had the choice to do anything in the world. Sadly, he couldn’t think of anything. And I’ve been in that place myself.

It happens because we become so accustomed to smothering our real dreams, so we can show up every day at a job we hate. We forget how to be free, because otherwise we couldn’t bear our daily confinement.

My friend, before he got this job he hates, used to work at the worst job I’d ever heard of. He showed up for duty every day in the sub-basement of a state penitentiary, where he had to draw blood from angry, disrespectful inmates and test them for STDs. Yikes. So his current job seems like a dream world compared to that.

The prisoners had it better than him, he used to say. They’d get out in the fresh air for a while every day, they got to eat three hot meals, and they had people to talk to. Sure, they had to sleep in cells – but he went home to a lonely, one-room studio apartment that wasn’t much bigger, for which he had to pay $600 a month.

But there was a big difference between them, I reminded him. At least the prisoners spent time dreaming of what they’d do when they got free. They knew their chains, however heavy, would eventually come off. This kept their dreams alive.

My friend’s Elephant Bracelet, on the other hand, won’t come off. He could walk straight away from the post, or fly straight upward into the night, if he wanted to. But he’s forgotten why he would want to.

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