The other day at work, I had to move a bunch of files. Yes, this is a boring story, but stick with me. I am a nonprofit fundraiser, which means that I spend lots of time opening envelopes with checks in them, and then processing the checks. Each check is accompanied by a piece of paper. The checks get sent to the bank via the finance guy, but I keep all the papers in a desk drawer for a year in case I ever need to verify anything, or you know, just in case.
But so the files at my desk had gotten full of these pieces of paper, and I needed to move them to a cabinet in the back of the office. As I loaded up a cart with my hanging files, it occurred to me that each piece of paper represented the time it took for me to open an envelope, type the pertinent information into our database, and later, write the person a thank you note. That rolling cart full of paper symbolized a huge chunk of my life over the last year, and that seemed kind of sad to me.
Don't get me wrong, I love my job. And if nobody spent time doing that stuff, my organization wouldn't make money, and if we didn't make money we couldn't spend money doing good stuff, and without our good stuff the world would be a (slightly) less nice place (we're not really that big of an organization.)
Even so, seeing an accumulation of physical stuff that reminds you just how much time you spend on anything is scary. Like that guy who took a picture of himself every morning and then made a movie about it: we've all woken up every day for the past six years, but seeing the evidence is upsetting, somehow. It drives home the extent to which life is rushing by incredibly quickly and there's nothing you can do to slow the breakneck speed with which you are approaching your inevitable death.
Nah, just kidding. I didn't get that upset. More just amazed that I'd spent such a huge amount of time doing something so boring without wanting to kill myself. Most of the evidence of routine in our lives is washed away: toothpaste goes down the drain, watched shows are deleted off of TiVo, read magazines are recycled, food turns into poop and poop goes down the toilet, old articles online vanish off into some archival ether, trash gets taken away to the dump. Though most people's lives are an ongoing narrative of exciting events supported by framework of repetition and habit, it is unusual to see the detritus of habit all in a pile.
After my brief existential crisis, which from the outside probably looked like I had suffered a minor stroke, I wheeled my cart to the back storage area and started putting my files into the end-of-Indiana-Jones-like giant filing cabinet we keep for that purpose. The drawers and drawers of files--some mine, but lots from before my tenure there--made my pile seem less sad. Rather than a monument to the prominence of data entry in my life, it made my work seem connected to a body of work that stretched back years.
I could see that I was contributing to something that had been there before I arrived, and that would keep chugging along after I left. My pile of paper was evidence that I was part of something, and even if it was just my day job, I was participating in something larger. Which was kind of neat.