By Mark Judge
The recession has been bad for the economy, and a disaster for us journalists. But it’s been good for my soul.
After a 20-year career as a writer and journalist, I’m now an usher. Actually, I’m a Visitor Services Representative for the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at the National Geographic Society. My job is to check coats, tear tickets, politely herd people to proper locations and general do whatever needs to be done for the 2,000-3,000 people who come through the museum every day to see the Terra Cotta Warriors — life-sized, 2,000 year-old Chinese clay figures who have been the winter buzz of Washington. The figures, some 8,000 total (the Geographic has 15 on display) were built by artisans around 200 BC. They were done at the order of China’s first dictator, Qin Shi Huang, and no two are alike. Their purpose was to both usher the emperor into the afterlife and protect him.
So I’m kind of a gopher, making people happy and protecting the protectors of the emperor. It’s a temporary job, and one that I didn’t necessarily have to take. What made me do so was the cancer that I was diagnosed with last year. After six months of chemotherapy, I felt unwilling to do anything that seemed petty, micromanaged, or aesthetically dead. I simply could not be the guy in the movie Office Space, losing a small piece of his mind day by day while the boss passive-aggressively asked him to cancel his weekend plans – again – so he can come in and push papers.
And, for the first time in months, I felt strong. To be sure, the chemo had caused some nerve and tissue damage, and according to my doctor it would take about a year for that to wear off. I would also be on a maintenance drug rituxan that was new and experimental. For all I knew, it would turn me into the Hulk. But none of that was anyting like the dreary, deadening fatigue I felt in the months leading up to December 2008, when I was diagnosed with cancer. No matter what happens in life, there is usually a sense of security that, if all else should fail, you still have your working body. You can change careers, move to a different state, botch a relationship, but at the end of the day you won’t starve. You can wash dishes or fold clothes. But when your body itself begins to weaken and you don’t know why, a desperation sets in. You don’t feel well enough to work, yet you don’t know why. When I was diagnosed, I was actually relieved. Anything was better than living like that.
There is also a spiritual malaise that sets in when you can’t work. One of my heroes is Pope John Paul II, who had penetrating insights into the connection between work and spirituality. In 1940, when Poland was under Nazi occupation, the 20 year-old Karol Wojtyla went to work at the Zakrzowek quarry breaking up limestone. Up until then the future pope had believed, as he was taught as a boy, that hard work was a penalty of original sin. Yet seeing the dignity of the older workers, he came to a different conclusion. As Catholic intellectual George Weigel puts it in “Witness to Hope”: “[The pope saw that] work, with all its rigors and hardships, was a participation in God’s creativity, because work touched the very essence of the human being as a creature to whom God had given dominion over the earth.”
The question was, what kind of work would I do after my recovery? My father had worked at National Geographic. His was a grand life of travel and discovery and adventure. Yet it wasn’t 1965 anymore, or even 1995. Magazines and newspapers were laying people off. I checked the Web site, where I saw an ad for “visitor service representatives” for the five months that Terra Cotta would be in Washington. I had been an usher – I mean visitor services representative – at movie theaters years before. My dad had worked on the ninth floor as the associate editor. I would be on the first floor, saying things like “Sorry sir, no reentry without a ticket stub.” It was a long way down.
Or was it? While I’m convinced that bohemian raptures about freedom and escaping The Man are most often excuses for the self-indulgent, there was something to be said for doing work that wasn’t abstract – that didn’t involve information technology or accounting, or sitting in front of a computer all day trying to make money off of other people’s money. There was something to be said for work that allowed you to be inside your own body, like Adam plowing the fields of the Lord. After the cancer it would be an affirmation of health, of joy, of the simple goodness of doing simple, physical things – especially in the service of helping others experience something marvelous. It would be like that powerful scene at the climax of the movie Wall Street, when onetime Wall Street titan Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, has been arrested for insider trading. On a rainy morning in Central Park, he explains to his former mentor Gordon Gekko, who preached that “greed is good,” that he had lost his soul. He wasn’t a destroyer of worlds. “Maybe I’m just Bud Fox,” he said. It also didn’t hurt that National Geographic pays a good wage and treats its workers well, and that my coworkers, mostly students half my age, are smart and engaging.
In March, the job will end and, God willing, something else, something permanent, will begin. I will take leave of the warriors who have kept watch for two millennia, knowing that I am better in body and soul. I have passed through the shadow, but some pain, the pain that we all endure as fallen creatures, will remain. But I will be changed, I think. My ambitions are not what they once were. One night after work I was riding the subway home to Maryland. I felt spent. But I also felt alive. As the train came into Maryland and up from the underground, I saw the lights of home. On my iPod was a U2 song, “Moment of Surrender”:
I was speeding on the subway
Through the station of the cross
Every eye looking every other way
Counting down ’til the pain would stop
At the moment of surrender
Of vision over visibility
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me
Mark Judge is the author of “A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism and Rock and Roll,” scheduled to be published by Doubleday in 2010.