~ Not Letting Them Break You Down ~
Yes, it’s true that there are many kind-hearted people in this world, many people who want the best for you, but make no mistake about it: out there there are also countless people who want to break you down little by little – piece by piece. You are not always in good company in your day to day life. At every second, the sidewalks and cities of the world are filled with people who will try to assert their dominance over you to their own gain; who want you to feel timid and fearful under their shadow; who want you to be laid out on the floor so they can stand a little higher with their head in the clouds. Integrated into a society that often rewards their behaviour, they are the sociopaths, the narcissists, the bullies, and the manipulators. Sometimes they are simply the people who have suppressed their own issues and are looking for someone to vent their own inner pain upon.
Like most of us, I have come across a few of these creatures in my life. Sometimes they are easy to spot; sometimes they will first infiltrate your radar and appear as friends. The meetings have been many but the most notable example I can recall of this was when I was backpacking around Australia. Desperate as ever for money to keep on travelling in some basic way, I went online and responded to a casual job advert. It was from a middle-aged man who owned a few properties in the city of Adelaide and needed some help with them and his farm a little out of the city. The job description seemed like an easy fix, so I applied, spoke with him on the phone and arranged to begin work at the start of the following week.
It was three days later I got picked up with a fellow backpacker who had also responded to the ad. We were picked up on a dusty highway on the outskirts of the city. A beaten Toyota jeep pulled up along the freeway and there he sat behind the wheel: a big, bald, burly behemoth of a man, Australian but of Greek descent, with noticeably large hands and chunky fingers – the sort you knew had seen a lifetime of hard manual labour. I climbed in tentatively and introduced myself to him. Straight away he gazed at me with a piercing stare that shot right into the depths of my soul. I felt intimidated from the start. I looked down at how ragged and scarred those chunky fingers clutching the gear stick were and suspected that tough work awaited me. A painful, bone-crushing handshake then went and confirmed this.
Thirty minutes later we arrived at his farm and got to work. There was no time for ceremony I realised as he threw a spade at my feet and asked me start digging up a fence post in the nearby field. I grabbed it and began thudding away at the ground in the baking Australian sun. I already suspected he expected me to work at a fast pace, so with that in mind I toiled away with all my strength, breaking the earth apart and pulling out the fence as quick as I could while watching the sweat drip off my forehead onto the cracked ground beneath my feet.
After finishing this task he got me to clean out an old barn that was crammed full of junk that seemed to have been gathering there for at least a few decades. Giving me just fifteen minutes to complete the task, I ran around like a madman clearing everything out as fast as I could. While I whizzed around, he would repeatedly come and look shocked that I hadn’t finished the job yet. He’d stop in the doorway of the barn and scowl at me with a look of disgust. “What’s going on boy? You should have finished this by now. This isn’t good enough. You’ve gotta be quicker than this. Hurry up boy, hurry up”.
Already I began to see that the bald behemoth hated my blood and guts. This feeling only intensified when, after clearing out the barn, he threw a shovel at my feet and asked me to clear all the horse manure off an entire field. This job was to be followed by clearing out a hen paddock which had a stench bad enough to make the devil weep – that’s not to mention a little interruption where I had to try and herd some sheep into another field as he stood by the fence watching me with what I sensed was a feeling of jovial delight.
This sort of degrading, back-breaking work went on for a few days – and not just for me. Me and my friend would look at each other with exhausted eyes as he rampaged around the farm like a madman getting us to grind out our sweat and blood for what was essentially the minimum wage. At lunch he would invite both of us into the farm kitchen where we would eat lunch and drink a beer in a strange and uneasy atmosphere. It was a time to rest, but I never really felt totally comfortable to sit back and relax. There was an aura of contempt in the air and I felt a sort of bitter resentment or animosity towards us. Any attempts at small-talk or humour to creep under his tough exterior only resulted in that piercing stare he used so well and frequently to make you feel small and intimidated.
It was after a week of this exhausting existence that my friend decided to quit. It was a Sunday evening and I was speaking to him over the phone. “Yeah screw working for that bastard. I’m not killing myself for minimum wage. I spoke to a guy in the hostel who once worked for him too; it turns out he just likes to screw backpackers around for fun. He’s a psycho mate, he doesn’t even need the help, the farm is just a hobby of his. Just do yourself a favour and quit now. I’ll help you sort something else out.”
I thought about it and decided his words made sense. It didn’t surprise me that other backpackers had been through this ordeal and left after a few days. It didn’t surprise me that someone like that found pleasure in tormenting young backpackers like us he no doubt suspected came from privileged backgrounds. I thought some more about it and agreed with him; that it was better to just quit and find another casual job which wouldn’t be so painful and degrading.
I was about to text him my message of resignation when I suddenly heard another voice speak up somewhere inside my head. It was an old and familiar voice I recognised – the voice of stubbornness and resistance that I had occasionally listened to in hard times gone by. I thought back to the week on the farm and I knew from that piercing look in his eye that he wanted to break me down; I knew he found pleasure in recruiting backpackers and getting them to quit; I knew he felt better about himself that he could do these jobs that other mere mortals could not do. Having both of us quit after a week would only strengthen his resolve of hatred and contempt further. It was right there and then that I was going to brave out his thunder and lightning; that I was going to stand tall against his storm. My mind was made up and so began the start of a silent war. It was a war of endurance. Of pain. Of persistence. Of blind defiance to prove a point that I wasn’t even quite sure was at the time.
The week got started again and the battle continued where we left off. Picking me up on that dusty highway every morning, I was taken to the farm where I cleaned out hen pens of shit for minimum wage, where I blistered my hands as I dug away with a blunt spade into hard earth, where I scrubbed windows at a speed great enough to make my wrists snap while he stood beside me and barked at me to hurry up. There was one time on the way home that I had to run down a highway with a container when he had run out of oil. Having returned as fast as I could, he still remarked how I should have filled the container up a little more to the very top. “You’re just no damn good kid; you haven’t got any common sense and you haven’t done a day’s work in your life have you?”
I quickly realised that there was no room for any positivity or gratitude in this bizarre relationship. Sometimes a moment of quietness meant he was satisfied in some way, but other than that it was a lifeless affair. At lunch we would always sit in that disturbing silence as we ate and drank under heavy air. One time he spoke to me about his divorce and his daughter, but that was as deep and human as the discourse ever got. Any attempt to get any further details only resulted in hitting that familiar brick wall. Like many men across the world, he had closed himself off with a tough exterior that few, if any, would ever truly penetrate.
Eventually we started working in the city tending to all the homes and apartments he rented out. With him owning what seemed to be an entire neighbourhoods worth of residences, we shot around Adelaide like maniacs while rushing in and cleaning out the properties at lightning speed. I mopped floors, scrubbed dirt, cleaned windows and cut the grass while making sure I didn’t miss a patch that he would no doubt lose his beastly temper over. Sometimes I would briefly allow myself a quick moment of standing still and staring up into the sky, wondering how the hell I had ended up on the other side of the world in such a random situation. This wasn’t exactly what most people imagined when they thought of worldwide travel; scrubbing shit stains off toilet bowls while getting shouted at wasn’t exactly the mind-broadening, exotic experience I had envisaged back home.
Still, I found a way to deal with the absurdity of it all. The work itself wasn’t such a problem; I knew that the majority of people in the world had to toil away in hard, menial work for much less than the minimum wage I was earning. It was the fact that I had to deal with a snarling boss who was standing over my shoulder and relentlessly barking at me for hours on end. I reminded myself that they were just words and escaped into my own mind where I dreamt of coming adventures out on the road. One time he snapped at me while cleaning a bathroom for missing a spot on the toilet cistern, and I just stood there thinking of my east-coast trip while his words shot out at me. Like I had realised a few times in my life, I knew that in the depths of your own mind was the last refuge of freedom that no demon or tyrant could ever penetrate no matter what weapon or words they used. Insults could be hurled and skin could be pierced, but never could the bastards find a way to break into the wonderland of your own inner joy and imagination.
This tactic continued to work well until one day where he dropped me at his own property where he lived. We both cleaned up the inside of the house as normal and then he took me out into the back garden. He led me over to a hole in the ground with the top of a large pipe visible at the bottom through the dirt. Throwing that worn and weathered spade at my feet again, he asked me to dig around the whole pipe so that it was possible to get down beneath it and make a repair. After giving me this task he jumped in his van and said he would return in half an hour. “I want it done before I get back, you understand?” He then pulled out the drive and disappearing down the road.
With that command in mind, I got to work again, thudding that crappy spade against the rock-hard ground. The midday sun beat down as the sweat poured from every orifice of my body. The battle continued and, after twenty minutes of struggle, I began to realise that the situation was totally futile. My body was dehydrated, my hands blistered and bloody, and every thud into the hard ground opened up only the tiniest piece of room around the pipe. In a moment of exhaustion I threw the spade aside and went and sat under the shade of a tree for a while. I then went to the shop and bought myself three cold drinks before returning to the garden. I sat still in my own self-pity; I knew I was beaten and I didn’t care. I waited for the bald behemoth to return and shout at me with his thunderous voice.
While I sat there, I decided there and then to ring my friend to see what work he was now up to. I picked up the phone, rang him and began explaining the predicament I was currently in. Hearing my story, he was shocked that I still hadn’t quit. “Man, what are you still doing working for that psycho?” he said. “I’ve just sorted out a job at a party-hire company. It’s regular work, five days a week, and twenty bucks an hour. Quit and I’ll get you in here as soon as possible. I’ll speak to the boss tomorrow. Save yourself now brother.”
I told him to speak to his boss let me know. I put the phone away and carried on sitting there in the shade, thinking about the absurdity of the situation before me. As my mind wandered, I thought of the bullies in school. I thought how so many human minds vented their own hatred and fear at others just to make themselves feel a little better. This bastard of a boss was no doubt the same. I knew that those bullies and haters won the second you keeled over to them. When your back was up against the wall and faced the haters, one had to stand strong and remember that – no matter what they threw at you – as long as you kept the flag of joy raised in your heart then they would always lose. ‘Bring on your thunder and darkened skies; pour down your rain and watch my flowers rise. Ignite your hate with those flames of doom, and in that warmth watch my spirit bloom’ – a piece of poetry I had written once in a diary, which I suddenly remembered.
With that piece of poetry in mind, I decided then that I would endure his storm a little more; that I wasn’t going to quit the job unless he fired me. My mind had ventured once more into the realm of chaos and, as he came back to the house and began barking once again, I found a strange sort of sense of happiness and peace while staring into his red, erupting face. I smiled at him while he shouted at me and then realised that I had hit the wall and gone through. It had well and truly become a game of madness.
And so the battle went on and on. Some days I’d be on the farm cleaning up horse shit or fencing in the midsummer heat, and other days I’d be whizzing around those houses, trimming those lawns, mopping those dirty floors, scrubbing those shit-stained toilet bowls. Everyday I arrived home exhausted and in need of a twenty minute long shower to cleanse the dirt and the sweat and the madness off me. I’d look into the mirror and tell myself that it was a life experience – a lesson to be learned that would help fund my next stint on the road as I travelled down the east coast of Australia. Sometimes his degrading words reverberated around my skull as I went to sleep, but I eventually laughed them off, revelling in the stupidity of the situation that I was sure to remember until old age.
The critical moment came somewhere around the end of the third week when I had just finished cleaning up the horse paddock on the farm. With the smell of horse shit now permanently ingrained into my clothes and skin, I limped into the jeep, beaten and mentally traumatized as ever, ready to return home to that cold shower. It was a Friday evening and we drove to the spot on the highway where I was always picked up and dropped off. We reached the spot and pulled up along the highway. As we stopped he turned off the radio and let out a sigh. An uncomfortable silence filled the air. “I tried kiddo” he said eventually. “I tried kiddo, I really tried. But you just ain’t good enough. Here’s your check for the week. I won’t be needing you again”.
I looked over to him. I then looked down at his hand and took the paycheck from him. There were no more words – just still silence and a check. I let the realisation hit me and suddenly felt a symphony play in my heart. It had finally happened; I knew at that moment I had been successfully fired. My hands were blistered, my back sore and my mind exhausted, yet through the pain and strain and the verbal abuse, I hadn’t quit. I hadn’t let him have the pleasure of breaking me down totally. I sat back soaking in the aura of sadness that filled the car. This time I noticed he wouldn’t look me in the eye with that piercing stare, but just gazed out the window waiting for me to leave. After a while he turned and told me to get out the jeep. I clambered out and looked down at my hands. The blisters on the insides of my thumbs were red and raw with pride and pain. I then looked up at the sky and let out a big stupid smile. A victory had been achieved; a lesson of life learned. I watched his Toyota jeep cruise off down the highway, never to be seen again. I watched it until it disappeared over the horizon, knowing that he would always carry his hatred with him, for I had not let him offload it onto me.
That little job in Australia ended up serving as good preparation for what I was to face throughout the rest of my life. Since then I have encountered many other people like that man. For as long as you walk this earth, they will inevitably come at you from time to time. They will come at you in the workplace. They will come at you in the bars. They will come at you in the streets and the towns and the cities. When they do one must know how to stand tall against the contempt and absurdity that the human mind is too often capable of producing. One must stand with courage in their heart and madness in their mind, knowing that there is a joy inside of you that they can never take away – knowing that there is a fighter spirit that all the hate in this world can never wither down into nothingness. With that simple act of learning to dance in the rain and laugh in the face of the howling wind, one could ultimately save themselves from becoming yet another one of those hateful souls looking to offload their own inner hate and pain onto others.
That day when I was fired, I clutched my paycheck and strolled down the road back home with my head held high. I had been beaten down, I had almost broken my back scooping up horse shit at record pace, I had blistered almost every finger of my hand – hell I had even been fired – but I hadn’t let him break me down totally, and in some way that fact was one of the most valuable things he could have rewarded me with. Even with my measly paycheck, I had been gifted something that would prove valuable to the end of my days. I had learnt that within me was a fighter spirit that the most ferocious storm or hateful soul couldn’t easily extinguish. And in a world where so many resentful and hateful spirits crossed paths with you, few things were more valuable than that. As I had written that day in a teenage diary of the past:
“Bring on your thunder and darkened skies; pour down your rain and watch my flowers rise. Ignite your hate with those flames of doom, and in that warmth watch my spirit bloom.”
With that thought in mind I moved on through Australia ready for the next adventure, ready for the next battle – ready for the next quest in the wild and wonderful and, sometimes, backbreaking game of life.