My Existential Therapist Herb And I Discuss The Ramifications Of Existing In The Modern Workplace by Brian Polk | Art by Michael Dee

Great Ape-Bot-Dilemma by Michael Dee

My Existential Therapist Herb And I Discuss The Ramifications Of Existing In The Modern Workplace
By Brian Polk
Art by Michael Dee
Published Issue 122, February 2024

“I think I pinpointed the reason I hate working,” I tell my Existential Therapist Herb. “And it wasn’t immediately obvious. It really took some soul-searching.”

“Is it because you realized you’re not the steward of your own time when you have to adhere to a rigid schedule?” asks Herb. “Is it because you don’t enjoy being subservient to arbitrary chains of command where authority figures are granted power over you based on nothing more than a resume and an interview? Or maybe you feel you’re wasting your one and only opportunity to fully experience your own humanity every time you ask a customer if you can help them?”

I shift in my seat as I mull over his counsel. “No, I don’t think it’s any of those, really,” I say. “I think it has more to do with identity.” 

“Ah yes,” he says. “You’re upset that the entirety of your creativity and talents as a person are overlooked for your ability to provide a menial service to any half-wit who enters your place of work.”

I smile. He’s thought about this before. “That is a part of it.”

Gathering my thoughts for a moment, I notice Herb staring at me expectantly. His attention isn’t usually so rapt during our meetings. He’s also not ordinarily so conversant. Most of the time, he works on crossword puzzles or ponders his own place in the universe (I assume) while I blather on endlessly. 

“Are you back on caffeine or something?” I ask him. “Usually you’re not so interested …”

“Don’t lose your concentration,” he snaps back. “Stay dialed into this.”

“Okay, so here’s the thing: I don’t like the person I have to be when I’m at work. I have this totally different personality, and I hate that part of me. It’s like that song, ‘Bittersweet Symphony.’ ‘I’m a million different people …’”

“I don’t think I’ve heard that song,” he says.

This bit of information shocks me. I berate him for having never heard of it — which is ironic, since I’m unfamiliar with the entirety of Top 40 music these days. (Do they even call it “Top 40” anymore?) He asks which band wrote the song, and my mind draws a blank. I start to google it on my phone, but he tells me once again to stay dialed in.

“Oh right,” I say. “Think about this: if I spoke to my romantic partner the way my boss expects me to speak to him, my lover would lose all respect for me. No one — aside from authority figures, I guess — likes to be grovelled to. I’m pretty sure Ferris Bueller said something like, ‘You can’t respect someone who kisses your ass. It just doesn’t work.’”

“True,” says Herb. “But you are right to make an exception for authority figures. I think that’s why they seek positions of authority, because they do enjoy being grovelled to.”

“Sure,” I say. “But let’s stay dialed in, shall we?”

Herb smirks and nods.

“So, I have to put on this show for everyone at my place of work — my boss, my coworkers, the customers. I have to perform. I have to act. And it’s not a role that I have any respect for. If I were a professional actor and that part came up, I wouldn’t even audition for it. I would tell my agent to hold out for something — anything — that’s better than that.”

“So you find putting on a nametag, forcing yourself to smile, and suppressing each and every genuine expression of your personality to be dehumanizing?” Herb wonders. 

I nod. 

“That’s not really that profound,” he says. “I thought maybe it was one of the aspects I mentioned — the rigid schedule, forced deference to arbitrary authority, or the demeaning nature of customer service.”

“It’s probably those things too,” I tell him. “But it’s mostly compromising my identity by pretending to be someone else. And that’s the other side of this coin: if I decide not to do the job anymore, they’re just going to replace me, and everyone would forget I worked there. I’m an easily replaceable cog. So I’m sacrificing my very concept of ‘self’ for nothing.”

Herb has a look of concentration on his face, and as he opens his mouth to speak, I interrupt him. 

“Think about this: if I don’t write a song or a book or an article or a haiku, then that piece of art — that expression of my true ‘self’ — would not exist,” I say as I sit on the edge of the couch. “But if I don’t do my job, someone else will just do it. Either my coworkers will pick up my slack, or they’ll fire me and hire someone new — and that will be it. The work will still get done whether I have anything to do with it or not. So my job — the role that I perform the majority of my waking hours — has absolutely nothing to do with me. It existed before I was there and it will exist when I’m gone.”

“That’s kind of depressing,” says Herb. “I suppose when I retire, someone will just take over my job.”

“It’s true.”

“You know the reason I hate working?”

I shake my head.

“Patients like you who remind me everything I do is pointless,” he admits.

“Dude,” I say, “you’re an existential therapist. You would think you’d be used to it by now.”

“Well yeah, but let me ask you this,” he says. “How are you going to maintain morale at your job when all you do is think about how much you don’t like being the person you have to be in order to earn your paycheck? I mean, sure, I get that working is the worst part of most people’s lives, but you have to do it, don’t you? So what do you get out of the rumination? Why formulate worldviews that make the worst part of your life even worse? Wouldn’t it behoove you to spend that mental fortitude imagining ways your job benefits you, or ways you could make it better? What’s the point of hating a life that you have to keep on living?”

“What’s the point of hating a life I have to keep on living?” I say slowly as I really contemplate each word. My brow furrows. “Um … Hmm …” It’s the first time I’ve ever been left speechless in this office. I think about it for several moments. “I suppose there is no point to doing that.”

“There you go,” he says.

“Yeah, but I feel like I’m giving up if I don’t keep up the negativity, or something. Like I’m some kind of phony if I didn’t act miserable at work.”

“Well that’s ridiculous,” he responds. “Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep up the fight. Go ahead and march for the six hour work day. Vote for people who promise a guaranteed basic income. Throw molotov cocktails in the windows of capitalists for all I care. You can keep doing all of that and still find a way to not be miserable at work.” 

“I suppose …” 

“So?” he says after another considerable silence.

“So what?” I ask.

“So what are you going to do?”

I don’t feel like answering that question, because I don’t like it when I’m wrong about things. So I think of ways to change the subject. I look at the clock in anticipation of our appointment nearing its end, and I figure it’s close enough. “Time’s up,” I say.

He smiles and says, “It most certainly is, isn’t it?” 

Brian Polk is a Denver-based writer, publisher of The Yellow Rake, and drummer for Joy Subtraction and Simulators. He’s the author of Placement of Character and Turning Failure into Ideology. He likes writing, muck raking, yellow journalism, zines not blogs, cheap booze and punk rock.

Michael Dee left his family farm on the plains, and followed his artist’s dreams to the jagged city-scapes of the metropolis. There he fell into the seedy underbelly of corporate America, chained to a desk with only his pens and his wild imagination to keep him company. He now walks the streets as a freelance illustrator and designer working for those who are in need of an unbridled creative mind. He now resides on a homestead near the outskirts of Elizabeth with his femme fatale of a wife and their four children. Check out his work on his site and on Instagram.

Check out Brian’s January issue install, Every Day It’s Getting A Little Easier To Admit Life Is Getting Much Harder, and Mike’s, Safety Card, the companion art to Nate Balding’s Werewolf Radar: Fear of the Shark, or head to our Explore section to see more of their work.

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