Charles Eisenstein on work, leisure, and ‘not-doing’

Full desk clip art (PD)I’ve just finished reading Charles Eisenstein‘s inspiring new book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.  It is every bit as brilliant as 2011′s Sacred Economics, and I recommend it just as highly.  In lieu of a new blog post from me – I’m working on several, but none are ready yet – I’d like to share an extended series of quotes from the new book that are particularly relevant for rethinking the job culture.  Enjoy!

“Immersed in a system that never lets us rest, that condemns laziness and pushes us toward ever-increasing busyness through economic pressure, we…tell ourselves we must always be doing something.  Time’s a-wastin’!

“The primary habit that arises from it [existential scarcity] is the habit of always doing.  Here and now is never enough.  You might protest that most people in the Western world spend vast amounts of time doing nothing productive at all, watching TV and playing video games, but those are displacements of doing, and not nondoing.

“I am not saying that it is bad to do.  I am saying that there is a time to do, and a time not to do, and that when we are a slave to the habit of doing we are unable to distinguish between them.

“A good time to do nothing is any time you feel stuck.  I have done a lot of nothing in the writing of this book.  For several days I was trying to write the conclusion, spinning my wheels, turning out tawdry rehashes of earlier material.  The more I did, the worse it got.  So I finally gave up the effort and just sat there on the couch…with no agenda whatever of figuring out what to write.  It was from that empty place that the conclusion arose, unbidden.

“…do you find yourself contracting a case of the fuck-its?  The procrastination, the laziness, the halfhearted attempts, the going through the motions – all indicate that the old story isn’t motivating you anymore.  What once made sense, makes sense no longer.  You are beginning to withdraw from that world.  Society does its best to persuade you to resist that withdrawal, which, when resisted, is called depression.  Increasingly potent motivational and chemical means are required to keep us focused on what we don’t want to focus on, to keep us motivated to do that which we don’t care about.  If fear of poverty doesn’t work, then maybe psychiatric medication will.  Anything to keep you participating in business as usual.

“You can’t just do whatever you feel like.”  “You can’t just do anything you want.”  “You have to learn self-restraint.”  “You’re only interested in gratifying your desires.”  “You don’t care about anything but your own pleasure.”  Can you hear the judgmentality in these admonitions?  Can you see how they reproduce the mentality of domination that runs our civilization?  Goodness comes through conquest.  Health comes through conquering bacteria.  Agriculture is improved by eliminating pests.  Society is made safe by winning the war on crime.  On my walk today, students accosted me, asking if I wanted to join the “fight” against pediatric cancer.  There are so many fights, crusades, campaigns, so many calls to overcome the enemy by force.  No wonder we apply the same strategy to ourselves.  Thus it is that the inner devastation of the Western psyche matches exactly the outer devastation it has wreaked on the planet. [...]

“…it is scary to not do, or rather, to not impose doing.  Most of us have grown up in a society that trains us, from kindergarten or even earlier, to do things we don’t really want to do, and to refrain from things we do want to.  This is called discipline, the work ethic, self-control.  Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution at least, it has been seen as a cardinal virtue.  After all, most of the tasks of industry were not anything a sane human being would willingly do.  To this day, most of the tasks that keep society as we know it running are the same.  Lured by future rewards, chastened by punishment, we face the grim necessity of work.  This would all be defensible, perhaps, if this were were truly necessary, if it were contributing to the well-being of people and planet.  But at least 90 percent of it is not.  Part of our revolution is the reunion of work and play, work and art, work and leisure, of have to and want to.

“Our discomfort with a teaching like “You don’t have to do anything” comes in part from our thorough indoctrination into the work ethic, which holds that without the discipline of doing, nothing gets done.  If there were no grades hanging over their heads, no paycheck at the end of the week, and no internalized habit of work such devices have created, then most people wouldn’t keep doing what they do.  Only those who work for the love of it would continue – only those whose work gave them a palpable sense of service, of contribution, or of meaning.  In preparation for such a world, and to prepare such a world, let us cultivate the corresponding habit: in whatever way makes sense, let us practice trusting the impulse to work, and when it it not present, let us hold each other through the panic, uncertainty, and guilt that may arise.  [...]

“You don’t have to do anything – why?  Not because nothing needs to be done.  It is that you don’t have to, because you will do.  The unstoppable compulsion to act, in bigger and wiser ways than you knew possible, has already been set in motion.  I am urging you to trust in that.  You needn’t contrive to motivate yourself, guilt yourself, or goad yourself into actions.  Actions taken from that place will be less powerful than ones that arise unbidden.  Trust yourself that you will know what to do, and that you will know when to do it.  [...]

“When somebody is showing signs of distress and tiredness in organizing a specific activity we always ask – do you feel connected with what you are doing?  Does it make you happy or do you feel that you need to sacrifice for it?  If this feels like ‘work,’ stop it!”

“Doing only what makes them feel good, only what makes them feel connected, only what doesn’t feel like work…does that mean they get less done than when they were driven by urgency and seeking to be more efficient?  No, they get more done.  [...]

“Not that there is anything wrong with work.  Work and play, work and leisure…it is time to question these polarities.  That doesn’t mean indolence.  When I worked in construction, the labor was sometimes very strenuous, but it was rarely an ordeal.  I didn’t have the feeling of fighting myself or forcing myself.  There is a time to make great efforts, a time to push one’s capacities to the limit.  We have after all been given those capacities for a reason.  But struggle is not supposed to be the default state of life.”

~ pp. 106 – 138

Success, Dependency, and Alienation: A Discussion

public-domain-book-clipart[Recently, on the Facebook page associated with this blog, a quote I posted from Charles Eisenstein spawned a fascinating and friendly discussion with two of my readers.  I thought it deserved a wider audience than it would get if I left it buried in a Facebook comment thread, so with the permission of the participants, I have reproduced it here, after slight editing for readability.]

It’s been quite awhile since I quoted Charles Eisenstein, one of my favourite authors. Time to remedy that! Eisenstein is brilliant in a way that is unusual for scholarly non-fiction writers: his writing style combines intellectual rigor, exceptional emotional intelligence, systems philosophy, radicalism, and spiritual depth.

The following quotes are from Chapter 14 of Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. Note that, in keeping with his gift model, the book can be read in its entirety online.

“Not only is the experience of scarcity an artifact of our money system, but the laziness we view as human nature is a valid response to the kind of work that system engenders. If you find yourself being lazy, procrastinating, doing slipshod work, showing up late, not concentrating, and so on, then perhaps the problem isn’t your character after all: perhaps it is a soul’s rebellion against work that you don’t really want to do. It is a message that says, “It is time to find your true work: that through which you can apply your gifts toward something meaningful.” Ignore that message, and your unconscious will enforce it through depression, self-sabotage, illness, or accident, disabling you from living any more a life not aligned with your generosity.

[...]

“Sacred Economics envisions a world where people do things for love, not money. What would you be doing in such an economy? Would you be reclaiming a toxic waste dump? Being a “big sister” to troubled adolescents? Creating sanctuaries for victims of human trafficking? Reintroducing threatened species into the wild? Installing gardens in inner-city neighborhoods? Putting on public performances? Helping decommissioned veterans adjust to civilian life? What would you do, freed from slavery to money? What does your own life, your true life, look like? Underneath the substitute lives we are paid to live, there is a real life, your life.

“To be fully alive is to accept the guidance of the question, “What am I here for?” Most jobs today deny that feeling, since we are evidently not here to work on an assembly line or to push product or to do anything complicit in human impoverishment or ecological destruction. No one really wants to do such work, and someday, no one shall.”

———–

D. JoAnne Swanson:

I think Eisenstein is asking very powerful questions here. What would YOU do, freed from slavery to money? I have known for a long time that my first answer to that question would be “finish writing my book,” but Sacred Economics has inspired me to think much more deeply about this question and answer it in more detail.

———–

H.V.:

One has two choices in a capitalist society. Either plug yourself into a paying job or become an entrepreneur. If you do neither, then you are categorized as “dependent” and are shunted into one of three sub-categories: sick, disabled or lazy.

———

D.J.S.:

Sad but true…and the USA is an extreme version of this, where “dependents” who aren’t economically productive are treated with thinly veiled disdain at best, and often outright abused. This is but one among many ways the Puritan work ethic continues to hold sway over so much of our culture. One of the maddening things about the prevalence of this kind of ideology is that it draws attention away from the way the money economy we have now is extracting real value away from goods, services, relationships, and ecosystems. Look deep enough and it can be seen that the money system we have is actually dependent on gift culture and unpaid work…but because our culture is so deeply in thrall to a toxic ideology of work, and so preoccupied with determining which of the “dependents” are “deserving” and which are not, it can be difficult to dig deep enough to understand how the process actually plays out.

——

H.V.:

Of course, if one doesn’t conform to capitalist expectations there are some strategies which can minimize or delay the corrosive effects of the label on the psyche. Taking marriage vows or enrolling in university are two such strategies but they will end in failure because the commitments were based on false pretenses.

—–

D.J.S.:

Well, I don’t doubt that one of the motivating factors for some people who marry or enroll in university is to minimize the shame our culture mercilessly heaps on people who are considered economically unproductive or “dependent” (although marriage doesn’t necessarily help much with this; homemaking work, for example, is still viewed with thinly veiled disdain). However, I think it’s more effective to focus efforts on helping people realize the true value of their unpaid labour than it is to point the finger at them and tell them their strategies will “end in failure” (whatever that means in this context.)

———

H.V.:

I am not pointing fingers. It is intended as a bit of wisdom. Ultimately, it is better to “fail” than to be miserable trying to a “succeed”, because you will be miserable if you are not honest with yourself. However, the norms of capitalist society drive many individuals to practice self-deception out of fear being rejected and stigmatized if they are true to themselves.

——–

D.J.S.:

Ah. That makes a lot of sense, and thank you for the clarification. I agree that it’s ultimately better to “fail” in the sense of not living up to cultural standards than it is to than spend one’s life being miserable in a quest to “succeed” economically. Still, I can’t really fault people for not being fully honest with themselves about these things, because as you rightly point out, the cultural norms and the pressures to be “successful” are very powerful, and there are real costs borne by those who don’t conform. (Yes, I learned this the hard way myself…how else do people learn?) ;)

———

H.V.:

I am not sure. If we only learn through failure then I would say life is absurdly cruel and not worth living. Are we not allowed to learn through joy?

———

D.J.S.:

Oh, indeed we are allowed to learn through joy! In fact, that is my favourite way of all, and it happens to be one of the reasons I started Rethinking the Job Culture in the first place – because I want to live in a world where that happens more often! (I put that little wink at the end of the sentence because I meant those words in a tongue-in-cheek way.)

Also, I think it’s worth noting that while misery can result from lack of honesty with oneself about one’s real motivations, it’s also true that misery can result from being so relentlessly driven to seek the truth that one eventually becomes completely alienated from one’s own culture. That’s a different kind of misery, but it can be equally debilitating, I think.

——–

S.E.:

I think the statement that truth seeking can be taken so far as to make oneself miserable is very compelling. I get the sense that there’s something irreducible in such a misery. I mean, you arrive at that misery because you think everything happening around you is wrong, destructive (i.e. not truth); so what are you going to do? Will you resort to the same kind of wrong, destructive actions yourself in order to cure your misery? Wouldn’t that be turning your back on what’s true? I’m not sure the resulting misery and alienation are debilitating things, necessarily. I think other influences in our upbringing, in our culture are responsible for each one of us approaching misery in such a way that it becomes a debilitating thing.

———

D.J.S.:

You have some interesting thoughts there.  This line of thinking is relevant to my own struggles, so I’ll take it out of the realm of generalities and abstractions, and speak from a more personal perspective.

I’m in my forties now.  I have struggled all of my adult life to reconcile my creative vision and drive as a writer – and the considerable demands it makes of me – with the need to “make a living.”  I knew when I was very young that I wanted to write, but was not ambitious in the conventional sense.  I knew I didn’t want a “normal” job, and I knew – though I couldn’t articulate it until much later – that there was something fundamentally wrong with the script I was given for how to live a good life (go to college, get a “good” full time job, buy a house, have kids, etc.)  I was stubborn and rebellious.  I was driven to seek the truth.  I wanted to understand WHY there was so much pressure to live my life according to this script.  I resisted the pressure to “get a job, any job” as much as possible.  Out of this struggle, Rethinking the Job Culture (originally Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery) was born.

I would very much like to live in a culture where people with creative visions could have the freedom to develop their arts and crafts without being forced into jobs they don’t care about just to earn money for their basic survival needs (including health care).  That’s one of the reasons I support an unconditional basic income.  However, I don’t live in that kind of culture.  I live in a culture that shames people like me, and evaluates the importance of creative work by whether or not it brings in money.

All my life I’ve been told in various ways that the problem I’m pointing out is not actually systemic or cultural, but individual: if I don’t fit into the job world as it stands, there must be something wrong with ME.  So, as you might imagine, I have been dealing with feelings of alienation and misery for quite a long time.

Are these feelings debilitating?  Sometimes they are, yes.  I relentlessly sought out the truth – I wanted to know why there seemed to be no place for people like me.  And the conclusions I came to have left me profoundly alienated from the culture of my upbringing, which is an ongoing source of misery.  I won’t turn my back on the truth – I can’t, anyway, because once you’ve seen behind the curtain, so to speak, you can’t ever un-see it – but you’re right that there is something “irreducible” in such a misery.  There is a price to be paid for such knowledge.  And it is a high price indeed.

Thanks for reading my mini-essay.  I guess I was inspired today.  ;)

Why I Don’t Offer Personal Advice on Living Without a Job

Why Work t-shirt

A promotional t-shirt with logo from D. JoAnne Swanson’s former project, whywork.org, started in 1998 and passed on to a new owner in 2004.

Based on some recent patterns I’ve observed in my e-mail inbox, I think it’s time for a gentle reminder that while I sincerely appreciate hearing from my readers, I cannot answer all my mail.  I do try to respond to mail when I can, but there are certain kinds of mail I will always decline to answer.  One of them is requests for personalised advice about how to survive, make money, or find a community after quitting or losing a job.  I virtually never answer these, although it’s not because I am unsympathetic to the struggles my readers face; in fact, these struggles are mine as well.

So, given that the subtitle of this site is Radical Alternatives to Conventional Employment, why would I leave this kind of mail unanswered?  Well, first of all, I have already devoted untold hours of my life to researching, writing, and putting together this website and its predecessor, CLAWS (Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery).  The bulk of what I know about radical alternatives to conventional employment can best be found in the links and book recommendations I have already made on this site, its predecessor, and its associated Facebook page.  Your time would be better spent exploring these resources than writing to me personally.

The rest of my writing on these topics will eventually be published in my book, assuming that someday I can manage to find a sustainable way to keep the bills paid while I finish writing it.  I wrote the first half of the book when my circumstances were more secure; for the past five years, however, I have been struggling and living hand-to-mouth.  I now have some paid work cleaning houses, but I’m still on food stamps because the income I make from housecleaning isn’t enough to live on…and of course the more housecleaning work I take on, the less time and energy I have to write, so at this point it’s anybody’s guess when my book will finally be finished.

Second, your life is unique.  Your best answers are going to come through your own earnest efforts.  I don’t have solutions that will apply to other people’s lives, and frankly, I’d be skeptical of anyone who claimed they did.  I’m a writer.  That’s what I do.  I share my own ideas and experiences via the written word, and I point out resources that I’ve found helpful.  That’s the best I can do.  And sometimes I’m just too busy or exhausted from my “day job” or other responsibilities to write or maintain my web sites and social media accounts, so I can’t even do that much.

Third, I am hardly a role model for the job-free life.  As it happens, I have spent a good deal of my own life experimenting with various ways to minimise my reliance on jobs I don’t enjoy, and although I live simply by North American middle-class standards, I do not live a job-free life.  Not even close, in fact.  I’m in my mid-40s now.  My youthful idealism has been thoroughly tempered by devastating losses, and seasoned by the simple passage of time.  I have modified my plans accordingly.

But just in case I should happen to kick the bucket before I manage to finish my book, I’ll give you in one sentence my best advice on surviving without a job.  It certainly won’t satisfy the reader who called my writing “eco-pixie” (ha!  I guess I’ll own up to that one…) but it is in fact my best advice:

Learn how to listen to the land, and let it guide you.

I mean that quite literally.

There is a reason I refer to my studio in Portland as “The Hermitage.”  One of the reasons I so fiercely protect my solitude and my free time is to preserve the conditions that support quieting myself inside and slowing down enough to perceive the guidance of the land.  I consider stones, trees, and plants my elders and my teachers.  I have offered myself into their service.  I do not serve “jobs” or “the economy” except to the extent that I must do so in order to provide for my basic needs, and even then, something deep within my bones still resists that coercive force – so much so that I am still stubbornly working on Rethinking the Job Culture 15 years after I started it.  Whenever I need to know what to do next, I ask the land, I listen carefully and attentively for the answer, and then I act on the guidance I receive to the best of my ability.

The land teaches me about my own gifts, and how best to use them in service of the things that matter most.  You have gifts, too.  Everyone does.  No matter how humble your circumstances, you have something valuable to offer the world.  As I see it, fulfillment in work is a product of using your gifts in service of something larger than yourself – something you believe in.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from the land I serve is that what I receive follows in large measure from what I give.  If I do this – if I focus on finding ways to use my own gifts to serve something greater than myself – then I receive support in response.  Sometimes this support is financial, but not always.  Nonetheless, it is there.

You can step into this flow of give-and-receive as well, should you wish to do so.  Instead of writing to me to ask for personalised advice on how to live without a job or find a community, you can think about what really matters to you most.  Ask yourself questions like: “What would I do if I knew I only had a year to live, but knew for sure that I’d be healthy and financially stable enough during that time that I could engage my gifts fully to meet the urgent needs of the world?  How, specifically, would I spend that time?”  If you can answer honestly, your answer should point you toward something you care about.  After you are gone, how would you like the world to be different as a result of your presence in it?  It doesn’t need to be something grandiose, either; in fact, using your gifts for something as simple as giving hugs or sincere words of appreciation can be life-changing.

You may or may not be able to use the gifts you have to earn money in a conventional job or find the community you’re hoping for, but you do need to develop them and use them in service of something that matters to you if you want to live a satisfying life.  And as I have said many times before, it’s possible to have a job – yes, even a paid job – without being a wage slave.  Challenging, perhaps, but possible.

So that’s my advice.  It’s not personalised, but I hope it’s helpful anyway.  If you’d still like to write to me even after reading all that, know that I do welcome e-mail from readers; it’s always nice to know that my work is being read, discussed, and enjoyed.  However, the lesson I mentioned from the land can be applied to e-mail correspondence too:

What you receive follows in large measure from what you give.

On “Financial Independence”: A Rant

seedlingI don’t believe in “financial independence.”  Ultimately there is no such thing, much as some people might like to believe there is.

There is a narrative of “independence” in our culture that goes something like this: being needy is a bad thing.  I am also reminded of the saying “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”  I can see why this was a useful idea in the feminist movement, and of course I think it’s perfectly fine to be single…but on a larger scale, I don’t buy it.  To my mind, this kind of “independence” is not a virtue – it’s an illusion, and it’s high time we give it up.  Our culture is so myopic that we often refuse to acknowledge our own need for other people.  But the reality is that we need each other, and the Earth, to survive.  Period.  Relationships are our sustenance.  We need all kinds of relationships – social, cultural, and ecological – not just romantic ones.  It’s true that in the modern world some people can get jobs and provide for their needs with their earnings, and they may be perceived in the public eye as “independent” if they do this, but nonetheless, they are still dependent on their employers, a steady income, and the infrastructure (maintained by other people) that makes it possible for them to do their jobs.  Why is it so difficult for so many in our culture to acknowledge this?

People who have money often think of themselves as beholden to no one – “self-sufficient” and “independent.”  On the surface this seems true enough.  Look a little deeper, though, and the reality is different.  We are all just as interdependent as we’ve always been.  Sometimes we can use money to hide from ourselves the reality of whom we are relying on and which farmers provide our food, but the ultimate fact of reliance on others, and on the Earth that sustains us, remains.

If I seem “independent,” it’s not because I actually am.  No one is!  It’s because of a pervasive cultural narrative that tends to highlight only individual effort, and discount the effects of others’ support in making me who I am.  I’m here because other people empowered me, made sacrifices for me, gave me opportunities to learn skills, supported me, and encouraged me.  OTHER PEOPLE.  For the most part, these people didn’t balk when I needed them, or shame me for being “dependent.”  They just supported me and believed in me.  That is why I’m still here today to write this.

I am so fed up with people being shamed for “dependency” because they don’t have jobs or “financial independence”.  News flash, folks: There are never going to be enough jobs for everyone who’s capable of having one.  Unemployment is here to stay.  Get used to it.

Once again, for emphasis, because I think many people in our culture just aren’t getting this: Human beings NEED one other to survive.  NEED.  Let me say that yet again: We NEED each other.  And there is nothing wrong with this neediness.  Nothing at all!  You need me, I need you, and we both need the support of our community and social systems TO SURVIVE.

Repeat after me: There is nothing wrong with being “needy.”  We are born that way, for gods’ sake!  There is no shame in needing support.  We all need support, even those of us who use money to insulate ourselves and distance ourselves psychologically from that fundamental reality.  We are interdependent as a species, and we are ultimately dependent on the Earth and ecological systems for our sustenance.

It’s great that people want to take “personal responsibility” and help themselves.  But they still need social, cultural, and institutional support in order to do that.  We need a social structure that will support and reward these self-help efforts, instead of shaming needy people because they don’t have jobs.

R. Buckminster Fuller on ‘earning a living’

Buckminster Fuller has been an inspiration to me for many years.  This provocative quote (from New York Magazine, 1970) generated lively discussion on Facebook.  I like to think that Bucky would approve of me posting it here.

What were you thinking about before somebody came along and told you that you had to earn a living?  For me, it was reading, writing, and dancing…

R. Buckminster Fuller quote

A Few Words of Gratitude

Today I got a sudden spike in traffic via Facebook, and also received some very kind and supportive notes from new readers, so I assume someone out there in Facebook-land decided to publicise my work – thank you very much, anonymous publiciser!  Since I haven’t posted here in awhile, I thought I would take a moment to confirm publicly that yes, I am still kickin’, and yes, I am still working on the book manuscript whenever I can.  I am still struggling and scraping by; I’m doing my best to juggle the demands of freelance gigs, the manuscript, volunteer work, job-hunting (yes, indeed) and various other responsibilities.  But I haven’t lost heart!

I’m still keeping up the Facebook page associated with this site on a fairly regular basis by posting interesting links; updates there are far more frequent for now.  Readers of this blog are invited to comment on anything I post there.

Thank you kindly to those of you who have shared personal stories with me, offered words of encouragement and small donations, and taken the time to let me know that you enjoyed reading the first chapter of On The Leisure Track and are looking forward to reading the rest of the book.  You are helping to keep my spirits up during a difficult time, and I am so grateful for your support.

Quick update about On The Leisure Track

Greetings, friends of Rethinking the Job Culture.   Earlier this year, I announced that I hoped to have my finished book, On the Leisure Track: Radical Alternatives to Conventional Employment, available for you by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, however, the book is still unfinished and its release has been postponed indefinitely.  I am still working on it whenever I can, but it is very slow going.

2011 has been a difficult year of uphill financial struggles for me, as it has for so many of us. Even with all the sacrifices I’ve made, I have neither the funds nor the social structure to support even a very modest life as a writer in the USA, so I’ve been forced to postpone work on some of my projects in order to focus on making money.  (Funny, isn’t it, how my life in microcosm is a perfect example of why this book needs to be written?)  By no means am I giving up on the book, however.  It will be completed whenever I am able to complete it.  News, when I have it, will be posted here first.

In the meantime, I will continue to post on this blog occasionally.  I will also post quotations, links to thought-provoking articles, and other small tidbits on the Facebook page associated with this site.  Please share the link to it if you like my work and want to help me promote it.

Once again, thank you kindly for your support, your patience, and your interest in my work!

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