Given the leisure to do what they most want to do in life, a privilege few get in any case, many people would be at a loss. I’ve received the sometimes sarcastic blessing of knowing what I’d most like to do. Absurd as it no doubt seems, I’d like to give otherwise doomed children a creative workshop to do their stuff in.
I walked into a beautiful suburban kitchen the morning of Joe’s funeral. Joe, a gentle and universally beloved man, fought lung cancer to his last breath, and when his last breath was too weak to let him fight, his wife continued the fight on his behalf. In the end, as after every battle against an implacable foe on a steeply tilted battle field, the good guy lost. Arrangements were made for Joe’s funeral. An hour before the drive to the funeral home, the smell of coffee came from the kitchen. Two men, one around 60, the other 70, were talking about the older man’s recent retirement.
“Jesus, what do you do all day?” asked the younger man.
“Well, I work out on my treadmill. I’ve started to play golf, I do that a few days a week in the nice weather. I watch a lot of TV. I even read a book once in a while, believe it or not. It’s not bad,” he said with a weak smile.
“I’d shoot myself within a week,” said the younger man, shaking his head “I gotta go to work. I’d go crazy if I wasn’t working.”
Not me, I thought. It could be because I am already crazy, of course. I don’t rule that out. It could be because I have things I love to do that I do whether I get paid for them or not and at the moment am eking by without having to get paid. It could be because I believe in something bigger than myself that I am working towards. It could be because I am already crazy. It could be I am repeating myself. It could be many other things. The world could be wrong in its cyclops-like focus on the material “bottom line” and I could be right. I could be wrong and the world could be right. We could both be wrong, but in the end the world wins anyway.
One thing I will say, and it should be clear enough to go even without my saying it: work is the most universally practiced form of therapy in the world. Without work to give focus and identity, not to mention a livelihood, life can seem meaningless, a rudderless float in a thirsty ocean. Go to work and you will mostly not be thinking about the hundred things that might drive you insane. At work you earn money, sometimes get thanks, recognition or respect, feel productive (at least sometimes), have colleagues to talk with, spend the bulk of each day in purposeful activity of some kind. Those who do not work, can’t work, can’t find work, are prone to depression, anger, hopelessness, violence even.
L. Paul Bremer’s biggest boner as unqualified ruler of Iraq after Shock and Awe was firing everyone in the Iraqi army instead of keeping them employed and on the payroll. Bremer sent these unemployed men home with their guns and told them sternly to fuck off. Bremer and his bosses didn’t expect them to react like such enraged assholes, not after they’d been liberated from the tyranny of a modern-day Hitler. No good deed goes unpunished, they say.
I am not knocking work, though my attitude toward it may deviate from the prevailing Calvinist ethic. We live in a work and profit-driven society and it has long been thus. Go fight City Hall, Bremer-breath, one may well tell me. Work liberates, work is a good in and of itself, doesn’t matter what the work is — it’s better to work than to day dream. That much every school child is taught. Better to be productive than think about being productive in some weirdly personal, non-monetary way.
Better to do work that doesn’t mean much in the larger scheme, or work that arguably does harm, but pays you decently. In fact, meaningless work that pays well is preferable to most people to meaningful work that doesn’t pay much. Doesn’t take a highly paid quant to crunch those numbers and arrive at the correct answer. Certainly meaningless work that pays decently is infinitely better than meaningful work that not only doesn’t pay, but sucks the life out of you. Pursue that kind of unpaid work long enough and hardworking people will begin to resent your insistence on your right to meaningful work, curse you as the unredeemed prick you no doubt are.
Different styles, that’s all I’m saying.