Forced out of work; one of my greatest fears realized. The timing is curious, for me personally, the agency I work for, and the country as a whole. It’s an exercise in understanding how work is central and integral to life. Take it away, and what is left? More than 800,000 of us are now finding out the answer while the rest of the country watches, not without judgement. For many, basic needs cannot be met; this is by far the worst collateral damage of a government in turmoil. I am grateful to be among the few who are free to fixate concern on the less dramatic consequences.
Such a lengthy pause serves as a reminder of past furloughs. The one I remember came before my entry into government service. The 2013 shutdown overlapped a small conference of research and management experts. Even from an outside perspective, the overall effect was striking. Government employees were major players in that circle, providing important momentum to push knowledge forward and implement it. Luckily for the rest of us, their absence did not prevent the meeting. Yet, emptiness was felt frequently during formal discussion and small talk. Their ideas remained unsaid, unrealized. The community was not whole without them.
The current shutdown has forced cancellation of a conference. This was an interagency conference, supported strongly by government presence. Not only does it have a history of building a program with international expertise in its field, it establishes and nourishes numerous productive collaborations. And, not least importantly, it serves as an annual gathering of colleagues and friends who are spread widely across the continent and the globe. Thanks to the shutdown, knowledge will not be shared at this meeting. Ideas will not be exchanged and transmuted. No synergistic energy will emerge from Annapolis this week.
In the midst of mounting losses in individual and agency productivity, as with any unfortunate event, a shift in perspective reveals silver linings. For one, this is simply a pause, not an undoing. There will be other conferences, other chances to work together to solve problems. As the pause lengthens, its impacts broaden, which increases the likelihood that different and unexpected groups and individuals will commiserate and recognize commonality. This interesting side effect could strengthen community, professional, and personal relationships. The shutdown is also a forced practice in facing uncertainty – a critical life skill and a good reminder that planetary resources are finite. And for me, it’s a chance to gain perspective on a years’ long entanglement of identity with career trajectory and work productivity.
Clearly much more is at stake than self-examination, relationships, and missed scientific conferences. Though furlough is mandatory for non-essential staff, it may prove valuable in some sense as a strike. We are public servants, and as much as we long to return to our daily duties, our absence might be noticed enough to provide the necessary momentum for change. Proper, on-time financial support for the sustainability of our nation and its resources is imperative. Funds should not be allocated to unnecessary, fairy-tale sized walls. We did not choose – and do not support – this absence from service. We voraciously consume and dissect every new headline for inklings of its end. And yet, as it drags on, I wonder whether it could be a catalyst, causing our nation to abandon its tribalist fascination, binding us together over our most precious resources: our land and our people.
If time is a series of moments, some of greater meaning than others, my hope is that many moments from now this shutdown appears as a reset moment, a pause that helped to refurbish and redefine personal, agency, and national goals and missions.