Participation/Consent

I once worked for a Senior Leader who believed that addressing people’s fears out loud would legitimize the objects of their fear. This was an otherwise skilled political appointee whose good opinion I coveted but failed to secure. She appeared to think that if we addressed employee concerns about a building system malfunction or an impending government shutdown, we would be somehow endorsing those things as acceptable outcomes. I couldn’t get my brain around the idea that sharing information about something we didn’t control might constitute acceptance or that recognizing an unpleasant reality might constitute endorsement thereof. (Since I am still bitter, let me add that I’m glad no one put this person in charge of responding to actual environmental or public health problems. Radiation? What radiation?)

Reality is not waiting for our participation. The building ventilation system will continue to function (or not) whether I talk about it. Congress will do what it does without my endorsement. The lab will continue to send me bills whether I open them or not. Employees are still subject to office policies whether they acknowledge them or not. The government will validate the results of the elections regardless of the opposition party boycott. Unless you’re living as a revolutionary – or a hermit in a remote freehold, healing your own ailments with roots and berries – there isn’t a valid “opt-out” option for most institutionalized life processes.

When I’m in a funk, I feel like withholding or withdrawing my consent from the early 21st century suburban wage slave wife-and-mom terms of service. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In either event, I often confuse consent with participation. I stop opening envelopes and don’t clean up the pile of crap that’s accumulated near my basement desk because I just don’t want to participate anymore. I don’t want to be responsible for these people. I don’t want to make the effort. In those moments, I fantasize about opting out in terms that range from impractical to immoral to downright irreversible.

(Sooner or later something wakes me up and reminds me that it would be smarter to participate in such a way that I can find my way to some version of the aforementioned freehold (or at least a comfortable approximation thereof) without bringing shame upon myself or surplus sorrow upon my family. I’m rooting for that something to kick in soon, because damn. Dino Spouse and Mouse both look worried, and the basement is a mess.)

I wonder how many bosses refrain from talking about problems in the office because deep down they’re annoyed at people for getting distracted by unpleasant realities (like malfunctioning building systems or looming shutdowns) and demanding reassurance.

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