Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” The man was centuries ahead of his time with that meme-worthy nugget. He was Facebook before Facebook was cool. Or invented. He was also full of shit.
Truth is, knowing yourself is the beginning of depression. And self-loathing. Knowing myself has never so much as pointed me in the vaguest direction of wisdom. As far as I’m concerned, “ignorance is bliss” has more veracity.
I despise learning about myself. It is never good. It is never positive. I have yet to awaken with a clear understanding of quantum physics, for example. That would surely begin some kick ass wisdom. Knowing I have a severe sugar addiction hasn’t stopped me from eating sugar in all its varied forms, eroding my self-respect with each delicious swallow. Wisdom hasn’t begun with that knowledge, diabetes has.
Recently I learned something else about myself. Well, re-learned it if you want to be picky. I’m a hypocrite. I’m not wiser for knowing it, just sadder. And fatter. Eating cookies by the row is how I deal with disappointment. I know that about myself too and yet here I am with Oreo coated teeth.
It happened back in February, when my wife was punted from her job of nine years as a geologist at an oil sands company. She was the sole income earner, I having walked away from a similar career to be a stay-at-home parent a decade ago. While not entirely unforeseen, it sent a shockwave through our household.
I like to think of myself as environmentally conscious though I’m certainly no environmentalist. My actions would never warrant the label Tree Hugger. I’m no fool about my limitations when it comes to protecting the earth. Like many, I think a big game. I sometimes even talk a big game. But when it comes to walking that big game, I tend to choke.
Still, I did earn a university degree in environmental hydrogeology with the intent of helping the earth. Struggling to determine my future in grade twelve, a spurt of idealism struck me as the local water supply was being abandoned due to contamination from a chemical plant. A career in groundwater remediation seemed both timely and interesting. And maybe a bit noble.
Sure, I gave it up after eighteen months to work in the oil patch. Disillusionment with the reality of “environmental” work combined with twelve hour night shifts in -40 Saskatchewan winter will do that. Besides, the pay was far better and I had a future to save for. Pragmatism is another of my faults.
But over the last couple years I found myself gravitating back to that long ago idealism. I’d been out of the patch for a decade and a lot had changed. I had rendered myself pretty much unemployable as an oil and gas geologist at a time when oil and gas geology jobs were as scarce as political decorum. More so, I’d begun to rethink my involvement in the industry altogether.
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it makes the mind suspicious. As climate change burst to the fore worldwide, I felt a mounting discomfort with my complicity in damaging the planet. I remembered that kid stepping onto the University of Waterloo campus ready to rescue the earth and felt pangs of guilt at a life now entirely paid for with oil sands dollars.
Furthermore, the rhetoric embraced by those around me was distressing. The understandable worry and fear from job losses had grown angry and sinister. Wounded pride unleashed a selfish vengeance casting blame at tiresome old targets and fellow citizens alike. Embraced and encouraged by civic leaders and politicians, Albertans became more belligerent with some denying our oil industry had any culpability whatsoever for what was happening to the planet.
I started to inwardly speculate that my wife actually losing her job, a spectre that hung over her daily for the past couple years, could be a good thing. We could assuage my simmering guilt by finding new, less-destructive means of earning income. Maybe even do something good and make amends.
Again, it was far more talk than action and mostly just inside my own head. I personally hadn’t done anything to re-engage my former hydrogeological career nor had I made any effort to do anything meaningful in support of my purported environmental ideals. I recycled … unless the container found in the back of the fridge was too gross … and otherwise sat smugly in my two-storey home judging those who put monetary gain ahead of planetary health.
Then one morning, as I groggily prepared my kids for school, my wife forwarded me an email she received while commuting to the office. It was from her company CEO and it informed employees that layoffs would be happening that very morning. Within the hour, she was unemployed and packing up her office while I was driving downtown to bring her home.
The first thing I thought, and I thought it with a razor-sharp decisiveness unlike any I’d had in ages, was … one of us needs to get a job! ASAP! In the oil patch! It was an immediate thought and an adamant thought. All that noble idealism that had churned round in my mind the last few years became instantly irrelevant. We needed another oil patch job! And the reason we needed that oil patch job was money.
The oil patch pays ridiculous money. All those politicians and proponents of hydrocarbon enterprises chirping about good-paying jobs are factual but disingenuous. They aren’t good-paying jobs; they are great-paying jobs. Over-paying, jobs. People working in the oil and gas industry make exceptional pay with robust benefits and perks.
It’s a running joke in our family that our kids better appreciate how much they’ve cost us by having me stay home to raise them. With my wife and I sharing identical careers, we have the luxury (or curse) of knowing exactly how much income we have eschewed by having a single income. That total ratchets ever upwards and leaves me wondering what we were thinking, particularly on days when the kids are poorly behaved.
Ironically, a surprising number of my friends don’t particularly like their oil jobs. While others would kill to earn what they do, many of my peers feel trapped, uninspired, and beholden to the money. For geologists the industry has irreparably changed. Resource plays dominate and though they enrich and sustain the patch, they aren’t as exciting as the storied conventional exploration plays of old. The thrill of the chase and the elation of the find, even the agony of defeat, have been replaced by a mindless, repetitive grind. Then again, millions of Canadians have mindless, repetitive jobs and they get paid much less to endure them.
I think this is where Albertans fail miserably in connecting with other Canadians. Yes, this relentless downturn has stifled investment and led to mounting layoffs, but it has also forced the oil industry to behave like most other industries. Wages have stagnated. Generous benefits have curtailed. Lavish bonuses have subsided. Extravagant Christmas parties and employee team building events have waned or disappeared altogether. The life of an employee in the oil patch is no longer quite so special. It’s become just like any other job out there except, you know, for those juicy paycheques. Is it any wonder our tantrums are falling on deaf years?
It’s now been two months since my wife was fired and my desire for another oil patch job hasn’t subsided. I’ve even applied for a couple myself, with expected results. I’m trapped by the same golden handcuffs as my friends. They’re smudged black and sticky, don’t smell the best, and the key to removing them is gone. I thought I’d ditched mine ten years ago. Turns out they just needed a little polish to remind me they were still on, something my wife’s former employer generously applied.
I know myself much better than I did at the start of the year. I’ll be damned if I feel wiser for it.