It’s a tricky thing to observe, cuz I don’t think there’s much I can do about it except lament, but I’ve noticed that most of the relationships in my life that feel toxic–mainly to the extent that the other person is curt with me, or condescending, or outright insulting–is that these relationships are sustained out of financial necessity.
Which is to say that, for the most part, these awful relationships are born in the workplace. But there are other sorts too. Not all of them, but certainly the majority. I can’t really talk about here because, again, if those other person find out I actually dislike, it could damage my livelihood.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, blogger at essayist and author of Thick (one of my favorite essay collections), said succinctly, in a public event with Roxanne Gay, that “integrity is not cheap”.
In other words: Your boss calls you an idiot, mocks your body, does something totally reprehensible. If you had integrity, you’d walk out of that job. We can probably all agree with that. But if you’re broke, if you need that job not just to subsidize your hobbies but to actually survive, then you can’t afford to walk you. You can’t afford that kind of integrity. You’re forced instead to just smile and take it. (Cottom was talking more specifically about being a freelance writer; about the fact that sometimes, in order to pay the bills, you’ve gotta take whatever writing assignment comes your way and just be grateful.) (Double paren’: Barbara Ehrenreich released an essay collection last year, Had I Known, in which she talks at eye-opening length, through the Introduction, about the economics of being a freelance writer, detailing some of the hokey shit she had to scribble, here and there, in order to keep the lights on; and again, it’s an amusing and eye-opening passage, but it’s also kinda depressing because, seeing as she’s referring to the magazine market of the 1980s and ‘90s, even the bullshit low-paying gigs she’s describing no longer exist.)
David Remnick, chief editor at The New Yorker, told a story on The Axe Files podcast (I think it was there) about an occasion when he had two writers working hard on a project, and the project was behind schedule, and the delay was complicating his life. As he tells it: He knows they’re working hard, but it doesn’t help with his anger to know that.
So he sends them an email, basically explaining what a headache they’re causing and telling them to pick up the pace.
To which one of the unnamed reporters writes back, cucumber-cool, and she says, “I don’t know what to do with this email except feel bad.”
And that’s kind of how I feel in telling you that the main reason I’ve got a handful of incredibly unpleasant people in my life is cuz I’m broke. It seems like the kind of thing that’ll actually get worse by mentioning it because, now that I’ve chiseled the experience into words, I’ll be able to discuss the phenomenon with myself while enduring it.
They do sincerely take a toll on me every day, these undesirable relationships, but I’m only driven to mention them now because I had a pretty pointed encounter this afternoon. One of these people reached out to me via text, demonstrating one of his recent accomplishments (which is literally the only thing this person and I discuss, apart from financial matters), and I wrote back at considerate length. A solid paragraph.
I was thinking, “Boy, y’know what I could buy with a million dollars?”
Not happiness, no, but certainly some better company.