The fix we’re in

I fret. How the heck will we turn this this world right if our youth aren’t at the grindstone? Some are dutiful, but most (as with the rest of society) are willing to Wii as Rome burns.

But I know my anxiety doesn’t help a whit. It’s my work ethic taking over, as the work ethic does.

Perhaps our skeptical youth are closer to the mark. Have hard work and hard driving personalities gotten us to a good (environmentally sustainable, community minded, just, equitable) place so far? Will more of the same get us out of the fix we’re in?

About 10,000 years ago our forebears shifted away from hunting and gathering as the primary method of obtaining food and settled into growing crops and domesticating animals. The cult of the seed was the beginning of the end for us as a species, or so the argument goes. Once we were able to store food in quantity we were able to support cities, standing armies, and a whole lot more children.

Ruling classes

From safe within fortified communities, the ruling classes hunted for sport, dabbled in “high culture” and technological inventiveness. They also explored and exploited distant lands. Further conquests of people and lands were driven by the need to feed new raw materials to the industrial revolution. Competition between nations was the model for competition between companies: squeezing human and natural resources for ever greater profit.

The internal combustion engine and discovery of underground oil reserves gave this trajectory a huge giddy-up kick in the pants. Pollution, oppression, and spiritual dullness have resulted – all because we thought it better to put food up rather than chase it down. I’m sympathetic to the argument. But 40,000 years of evolution seems like its own justification. Not to mention it’s pretty damn hard to slow down.

IT’S BEEN QUITE THE PARTY, quite the experiment – the cult of the seed, the industrial revolution and the centuries that followed. And we can tell by the size of our hangover.

I no longer believe in a super society that’ll save us with new policies and technologies. That was a particularly insulated Euro-American perspective in any case. Why trust our global institutions? They, and we, have failed at equitably distributing food, clean water, shelter, health care, opportunities and education on this planet.

But guilt isn’t helpful. Better, I’ve found, to make good the relationships nearest to us and stop doing whatever causes the most harm. To my immigrant-pioneer way of thinking, I just need to try harder at this. But what if it involves letting go of work? Working harder – working better, even at community activism – isn’t the answer.

Busyness distracts

At least it hasn’t been so far. Keeping busy – busy doing, busy producing, busy consuming – keeps us from reflecting on the situation and modifying our behaviour according to the evidence around us. Our busyness is a distraction. And not a rejuvenating one.

The biblical story of Mary and Martha comes to mind. When visitors came to the door, Martha worked while her sister sat and visited. Martha became angry because she was left doing all the work. Jesus admonished Martha and said that Mary had chosen the more worthy path.

Our greatest spiritual leaders consistently suggest it is our being quiet, relating, connecting and believing that show us the way. If we all stopped for a moment, reflected on what was most important to us, and then made the important stuff central to our lives, would the world be the same? Or would it change, without anyone having to “go to work”?

Issue 17

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 17, Spring 2010, The Work Issue.

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Issue 17, Spring 2010

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