Disidentifying with Work, Defining Enoughness
For the past three years—the number of years it has been since I graduated college—a particular contour of my depressive episodes has been that they are often brought forth by work-related reasons. The reasons being: not having work, job-search fatigue, the unrelenting yet difficult to drown out insinuations of unworthiness that come with rejections, being overworked, being underpaid, lack of recognition, performativity fatigue from navigating work power dynamics, being exploited, risking a lot by refusing to be exploited… the reasons go on and on. Work has had a powerful hold over my well-being. Lately, I have come to realize that we imagine and organize ourselves around work in restrictive ways that demand we conform ourselves—however unconsciously—to a status quo that hampers individual and collective well-being in the name of economic gain.
Writing about the contours of my depressive episodes—what they feel like, what brings them forth, what helps me to move through them—comes with much less shame for me now than it used to. I can point to many pathways that led me here. All of them involve questioning capitalist conceptions of work, time, and enoughness.
Norm-setting capitalist conceptions of work narrow our relationships to time and how we conceive of the enoughness of our lives in relation to productivity. Sometime between March and August 2020, I was in the thick of a depressive episode brought about by not having work, after a start-up company I worked for in Nairobi closed business because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst the barrage of imperatives to “adjust to the new normal” that were directed toward individuals, rather than toward the structures that the pandemic was conspicuously revealing as unsustainable, the process of searching for a job was more horrific than usual. Jobs were scarce and means of receiving material support felt even scarcer because the structural responses to the pandemic barely provided the cushioning they ought to have.
That depressive period was demanding. It seemed to clamor for me to wholly undo my conceptions of work and disentangle them from definitions of enoughness in order to clamber out of it. During that period, one of my integral coping mechanisms for dealing with the despair of not having an income and not being successful at getting the jobs I was applying for stopped working. My integral coping mechanism used to be telling myself that “things will get better”—a common-place assertion used to give reassurance that current worries are temporary.
When telling myself that “things will get better” stopped being able to placate my work-induced despair, when it stopped being able to get me to do things that are unbelievably hard in the thick of depressive episodes—things such as convincing myself to get out of bed—I knew why it stopped working. The assertion promised an inevitably better future, and I had never held onto its promise too tightly. Moving through the world as a Black queer person entails realizing quite early in life that the assertion’s better future is not promised to everyone.
The assertion, as a coping mechanism, was one I did not fully believe in, but I nevertheless fed it to myself in order to breathe through difficult moments. I know that it specifically stopped working during that period between March and August 2020 because the COVID-19 pandemic came with louder exposures of the various façades we hold onto to keep things together.
“What the COVID-19 pandemic has done is expose even further the endoskeleton of the world,” Dionne Brand wrote in her essay “On Narrative, Reckoning and the Calculus of Living and Dying,” during that period. The horrendous uncertainty of that period, exacerbating as it did the uncertainty that was already underlying the structures of life and work, amplified the farce of the promise of the future being inevitably better. The assertion stopped working because instead of helping me cope with despair, it added to the tightening of things. It fixated me on waiting for “the worriless better future.” When will it get here so that I can breathe? When will the future in which I have work that feels fulfilling get here so that I can breathe?
As the assertion gradually stopped working, I needed it to work so badly, even if I had not been holding onto its promises too tightly to begin with. When it finally totally stopped working, I needed to find other ways out. I had no other choice.
My need to have the assertion work and my fixation with waiting on the future where I had work to be there already so that I could breathe, were inextricably linked to my desire to feel as if I were enough. Wanting to breathe was wanting to feel like I was enough. The assertion promised that I would feel enough when I had work but I wanted to feel enough right then.
To feel enough right then, it was clear that the fundamental action—the one that had been glaring at me all along but felt too hard, too alienating, and therefore too exhausting to take on—was that of disentangling my definitions of enoughness from work. I could not hold my definitions of enoughness in the same capitalist logics of work that prioritize productivity as the sole legitimate way of moving through time, yet simultaneously aim to exclude many people from work in order for capitalist structures to sustain themselves. Precarities of unemployment and underemployment are not the products of imperfectly working capitalist structures, but built-in components of our economic system. Built-in components that are compulsory for advancing the accumulation of wealth, capital, and power in the hands of the few by disempowering labor.
Beginning to disidentify with work during that period turned my definitions of enoughness toward other things. One of those things was breath—considering that which makes breathing easier as that which makes me feel enough. My priority turned towards breathing through now, through then. I don’t mean this in the individualizing, neoliberal conception of breath sense that appropriates breathing in the same way that it has appropriated caring for ourselves. Rather, I mean this in ways informed by how Black queer histories and organizations of social life recognize breath as a central matter of concern.
Writing on how “our breath is networked with wider systems structuring our world,” artist, community worker, and web-designer Felix Loftus asked the question: “what can we learn from how breathing exists where it is restricted?” When my coping mechanism stopped working exactly when I needed it the most, my question became: how can I relearn how to breathe—how can I assert my full, liberated sense of self as a Black queer person—when breathing freely is restricted by the logic of capitalism and the realities of work?
A realization that insisted on itself was that my fixation with waiting to arrive at a worriless better future, in which I had work, so that I could breathe, gave work a powerful, sabotaging hold over my sense of enoughness. The long hours, the built-in unemployment and underemployment, the tying of income to productivity of the way work is organized now don’t provide us with fulfillment (as Kathi Weeks theorizes in her book The Problem with Work), but burden us with disillusion and dread. Work having a powerful hold over my sense of enoughness brought me disillusion and dread rather than breath.
Since I started grasping for less fickle coping mechanisms, I have also had to contend with the fundamental realization that I used to feel ashamed to affirm my desires; both the personal and the broader world-making ones for more breathable nows and futures. Affirming them felt too alienating, too hard, and therefore too exhausting but now, like I am with writing about my depressive episodes, I am much less ashamed to affirm my desires. More accurately, I have been emboldened to be less ashamed to affirm them.
What can we learn from how breathing exists where it is restricted by capitalist logics and realities of work? That being emboldened to affirm alternative personal and world-making imaginings of enoughness has helped. Kathi Weeks’ book, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries, reveals how speculative social imaginations regarding how work is organized, rather than being unrealistic and frivolous, are realistic and politically needed.
Writer and visual artist Eloghosa Osunde, in her column Melting Clocks, writes on what I regard as architectures of queer time and emboldens us to be less ashamed to affirm our often labeled unreal(istic) desires. “We find somewhere elses by making up and living out freeing fictions…we see how right here the future has been since yesterday, how we’re always practicing it in fractions now,” she writes in her essay & Other Stories. Contrary to how the assertion “things will get better,” made me fixated on when a worriless better future would get to me, so that I could breathe, Osunde’s “we are always practicing the future in fractions now” has made it easier to do so.
What can we learn from how breathing exists where it is restricted by capitalist logics and realities of work? That being surrounded by people who make an active attempt to relinquish work from being a barometer for how enough we feel in ourselves has helped. For example, the time that a beloved friend sent me a gift for being brave enough to turn down a grossly underpaying offer. It’s giving very much exploitation of global south labor and we won’t stand for it, they said. Like the friends who have reassured me of material support if I ever need it, in ways that—yes have made me tear up—but more so, have made it easier to shift how I understand feeling enough.
Like the beloved whose specific kind of love and support makes feeling enough something that is never in question. Loving support that looks like reminding me that I am allowed to have dangerous amounts of sleep when I am on break, productivity guilt be damned. Like the projects that have come with commensurate compensation for the uncertainties that come with freelancing.
Like Kelela’s song–Altadena, whose chorus is a gentle, reassuring chant, with lyrics that go “it’s not just me, it’s everyone” and, “there’s a place for everyone” —that helped me move through that demanding depressive period. Support that has looked like referrals and work opportunity forwards, as well as voiced trust and mutuality from those whose supervision I have worked under, has also been as inextricably linked to my ability to breathe amidst threats of work-related despair.
I have a feeling of immense gratitude for how lucky I am to be surrounded by these affirmations of enoughness. However, affirmations that worthiness is not tied to work should not just be personal: they ought to be reiterated structurally, culturally, fundamentally, widely. Whether we are working or not, we deserve much more than to have our senses of being enough hinging on luck.
Elsie Odero is a writer and researcher currently based in Eldoret, Kenya, and also as legitimately hails from where she names as ‘trying to be grounded in liminalities.’ They are a person for whom Black queer world-making has been a lifeline. Her writing is forthcoming on Genderit.org and hopefully more places.