30: Running Away to Join the Circus

30: Running Away to Join the Circus

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Running Away to Join the Circus

Damn everything but the circus.

~E.E. Cummings

In March, when the weather is damp, chilly and unpleasant, I’m diagnosed with yet another respiratory infection. Despite the ache in my chest, the fatigue, the shortness of breath and the painful coughing fits, I’m thrilled, because it means that I don’t have to go to work.

Perhaps this should be an epiphany for me. After all, when you’ve reached the point where incapacitating illness is preferable to your workplace, it’s probably a glaring sign that you need to find a new job. When it comes down to it, my work is more hazardous to me than my lung infection.

On paper it should be a dream: I work evenings, I make a decent salary for the hours I put in, and I can take time off when I need to. However, in reality, it’s eating me alive. The work has a customer service component, and the patrons tend to be belligerent and rude. More taxing, though, are the majority of my co-workers, who engage in the sort of catty name-calling and bullying that most of us left behind in middle school, if we ever did it at all.

I know that when my colleagues are ornery, it’s a reflection on their character, not mine, so I don’t give their remarks a second of my time. I ignore them and go about my assigned tasks. I don’t talk about my activities outside of work so they don’t have anything to mock. Still, spending every evening in an unpleasant environment takes its toll, and the negative energy drains the life out of me. Every night when I begin my two-mile walk to work I feel fine. By the time I reach my workplace, my head hurts and I’m nauseous. As I walk through the door, I’m tense and ready for combat. It’s toxic.

However, I don’t resign. After all, the economy is unstable and people are struggling to find jobs. Under the circumstances, I feel it would be foolish to give up steady employment. In addition, if I were to quit, my awful colleagues would win. Win what? I don’t know, but I can’t help but feel that to leave would be to concede defeat.

When my lung infection calms down a little, I return to work. I’m still sick and weak but I think I can handle it. I don’t even make it through a week. The supervisor doesn’t even ask how I am; she simply throws me into the busiest section with the most demanding clients. My colleagues sit in the corner and talk, since they don’t have patrons to handle.

As I struggle along, it dawns on me that I’m overthinking things. I don’t want to be there. Why can’t I leave? Because it’s foolish? Because quitting has a negative connotation? What I’m currently enduring is bad too, isn’t it? When every moment is fraught with stress, I’m not in a healthy environment. I finally decide that the only thing holding me back is me. It’s hurting me more to stay than it would to leave.

I call out sick again.

I resolve that I need to find another job, so I start surfing through employment listings online. To my surprise, I find an ad for a touring human-only circus. They’re going to be in town for a few months and they need help. The work is basic and completely below my capabilities. I could have done it when I was in high school. I would love a chance to learn more about the circus arts, so I submit my résumé anyway. A few days later I score an interview and end up getting hired.

I present my resignation to the toxic job, but the bosses at the head office don’t accept it. I’ve put it in writing, but after three weeks, they e-mail me to ask when I’m coming back to work. Two months later, they write to me again to ask if I’m ready to return from my leave of absence. I get suspiciously friendly e-mails from formerly hostile colleagues who wish me well and fish for information on my current whereabouts. I tune them out as much as I can.

The pay at the circus is less than it was at my former job. The hours are longer; the work is more physically taxing. There are a few blistering summer days where we have to spray ourselves down with ice water to keep from passing out. The difference is that I’m in an environment where my bosses and colleagues are decent, so I’m neither tired nor drained when I clock out at the end of the day. It takes a while for this to sink in. For the first few weeks of work I’m jumpy, I’m tense, and I’m always looking over my shoulder. I’m reluctant to befriend my co-workers; for fear that they will turn on me later. Nonetheless, I begin to notice that I’m smiling and laughing at work. That my colleagues and I look out for each other. That when problems arise, we talk them through instead of slinging mud. I don’t mind eating lunch with them. When we get stuck on the train together on the way home, I’m happy about it. It makes me realize more than ever that the problems at my old job weren’t about me. I smile because I’m not there, and I wonder why I waited so long to leave.

I don’t think of my old co-workers with bitterness any more. I realize that they’re going to be stuck in their web of petty cruelty for the foreseeable future, and I honestly feel sorry them. They’re dedicating all their time to being hateful. I, on the other hand, am devoting my energy to improving and enjoying my life.

Lesson learned: on occasion, the best way to win a war is to leave the battlefield… and join the circus.

~Denise Reich

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