I got a job on Monday. In some ways, it was the most depressing thing that's happened to me in months. First, I'm immensely grateful to have it, so let's get that out of the way. It's a good job, with generous pay and benefits that I actually hesitate to tell people about, they're so good. This job will let us move out of my mother-in-law's house. It will let us buy our own, a nice one on a good street, with money to spare. This job will let my family go from surviving to thriving. I'm going to work the hell out of it.
It also represents the plainest reality I've ever had to face about the break between the life I used to lead, and the life I'll lead for years to come. And the reality is, I miss what that old life meant to me.
I worked for the FBI. Hell, I didn't just work for them, I chased spies and terrorists for them, literally, as in using my own two feet to run after the bad guys. I watched them with my own eyes as they met and plotted and planned. That shit at the Navy Yard the other day? The guys I went after wanted worse, far worse. I helped stop them.
Then I moved on up to the next level, and helped fight terrorists abroad. I knew their names, their faces, their friends, their kids, the places they slept, the every detail of their lives. I helped arrest them when I could, and kill them when I couldn't. Yes, kill, because I didn't just know them; I knew their dreams.
I faced the reality every day that there were these people out there, people I knew intimately, who, given the opportunity, would hold me down and take a meat cleaver and hack at my neck until my head fell from my body. They'd do unspeakable things to my wife. They'd kill my kids. Say what you will for America's foreign policy, talk all you want about drones and bombs and oil, but those people exist and they want us dead. Because of reasons, maybe, but reasons don't matter much when the pressure cooker bomb is going off. I do believe in diplomacy, and I believe that there are places in the world where life is shit on the bottom of your boot, and I get it. There's dehumanizing poverty and decay and the swollen bellies of starving children. Hope dies every day out there and we can and should try to stop that.
But there's evil, too, and I fought it. I slept like a baby at night. Ever since I stopped, I've slept for shit.
My wife told me, at some point after we left, that I would never again have as "glamorous" a job as I used to. It is the single most depressing thing that she has ever said to me. I had a job that mattered, in a way that nothing else I can think of doing professionally ever will. I helped change the world, I believe for the better. I'll never have that again.
It's a terrible thing, to taste something meaningful, and then to lose it.
But there are all kinds of meaning. I don't want to face that fact, but it's true. There are so many ways to make the world better. You can do them professionally, or you can do them personally. You can find meaning eight hours out of the day, or you can find it sixteen... or twenty-four. Tyler Durden preached, "You're not your job." And the truth is, I never was.
I generally put in a forty hour week. I worked my ass off while I was at work, and then I came home. To my wife. To my kids. To my writing. To the things outside of that world that made me feel like myself. To the things that made my life meaningful to me. If there wasn't meaning outside of work, I'd never have left the office. But I did, every day, even when shit was going down. Bad guy on a plane? "Do you really need me?" I'd ask. Nine times out of ten, the answer was no, and I'd bail. I worked hard while I was at work, so that I could make sure that when the work day ended, I could get back to what mattered. And that wasn't countering terrorism.
I loved that job. But it was just a job. I wasn't doing it for free, and, despite its intrigue, I wouldn't. I did it because it put food on the table. We tried to chase our dreams a couple years back, up and moved to Portland on a wing and a prayer. Didn't work out. I tried to give up that life, that job, but I wound up crawling right back because that was What I Could Do That Had Value. Coming back to DC felt like defeat. I came back to it because it was a job, and I could work it and get paid and support my family. Yeah, it was a good job. Yeah, it was cool. But it was a job.
Meaning comes from something else. I'm not sure what, exactly. I think maybe I've let the coolness and the satisfaction of my job get in the way of figuring that out. But I'm not my job. And, thanks to an employer who was willing to give me a chance despite my weird background, I can figure all that out while having a good job, supporting my family, and putting food on the table.
I got caught up in the glamour. I drank the kool-aid. I believed my own bullshit. Hell, some of it might even have been true. But I always, always worked to live, not lived to work. Life was what happened when I walked back in the front door and saw my kids' eyes light up, fought off the excited tail-whapping of the dog, and got three little kisses from my wife. Part of me always knew that. Part of me had wanted to leave this job years ago, had even worked up the courage to try. Despite that failure, I now get another chance at success.
I still miss that old life. I miss the easy feeling of glory that came with working to stop terrorist plots and save innocent lives. But I plan on making the most out of this chance that I've been given to figure out what else there is that has meaning.
Someday, my kids will wonder why I ever gave it up. I had such a cool job, why am I now just [fill in the blank] when I could be chasing terrorists half a world away? When that day comes, I want to be able to look at them with a little twinkle in my eye, and say, "yes, but..." and then make them a little bit wiser than I once was.