Archive for April, 2011

Work is for Chumps

What does it mean to live a good life?

This week, I have wanted nothing more than to escape to a cottage in the woods (with hot water and indoor plumbing, mind you), to spend my days hiking, reading, and swimming, and perhaps serenading the local wildlife with some half-remembered 90s top-forty hits.

The things that bring me joy and satisfaction are not really a part of my working life. A handful of my coworkers share enough areas of interest or a taste for banter which can enliven an otherwise frustrating day, and I know realistically I would tire of a life that didn’t include some sort of ongoing project requiring my intellectual effort. But it is important to me that my work have some kind of value beyond the merely financial, and to have weeks where the stress is far greater than the frankly shallow tasks merit irritates me immensely.

I don’t object to strenuous demands being made on my time and mind; I quite enjoy the triumph of completing a difficult task or answering a puzzling question. What offends is that the tasks set are so inherently meaningless. It is arrogant, but it is a waste, or a misuse, of my knowledge and capabilities.

It behoves me to add that, obviously, I am in a position of immense privilege to even consider the petty misfortune of not being paid to be existentially fulfilled, when there are millions of people suffering from disease and famine and war, and that I should be grateful for my health, my upbringing, and my position of safety. And I am. But I think that is part of the frustration, too – that I am in such a comparatively powerful position, and yet, I have not yet found a way to use my good fortune to go some way towards making the human experience in general less horrible.

I have no excuse for not being a superwoman, for not finding a way to take down the patriarchy and end famine and save the planet and eliminate discrimination and injustice and war and casual violence. I mean, not even the Justice League did that, but hey, they were working on it. I spend hours updating spreadsheets and talking to taxi dispatchers. Imagine if I and my bright and driven coworkers could instead devote our time to making life suck less for everyone.

There are small things; I try to remain politically informed. I sign petitions and write letters to elected representatives. I donate money to charities and recycle and make a point of noticing and calling out bigotry or sexism or what have you whenever it makes an appearance. I am not shy about shouting at street harassers. I am not complacent.

I would not want to be the sort of person who didn’t ask herself these kinds of questions. I just wish I could have a more confident answer than to just keep going and look out for a chance to do more. It’s not as if a fairy career-counselor will appear in a puff of glitter and send me to an NGO job fair with a convincing CV or hand me a massive lotto win so I can devote my life to philanthropy.

When I was younger, one of my biggest concerns was dying without having seen everything. Now, the more I see, the more terrified I am that the powerful human engines of massively bad decisions will erode and eliminate all of the wonderful amazing things. And rather than spending my waking moments drinking in the wonderful and dismantling the evil machines, I am filling in spreadsheets.

This is not what I am here for.


Nasty, Brutish, Short

It is hard to find the will to blog, as it seems so futile in a world full of violence, injustice, oppression, and natural disasters. Because as a human being capable of empathy, knowing and acknowledging the degrees of danger and suffering and injustice seems so daunting, and so unchangeable. One has to surrender to the truth that millions of people suffer and die from preventable things. There is an obligation to protest, to speak out, to see what is happening and say that it is unfair and do what one can to prevent or ameliorate. And then, one has to surrender to the momentum.

Our task, the humans-in-groups task, is, I think, figuring out how to live. For those of us lucky enough to be living a life of privilege where food and shelter are readily available, where diseases are easily treatable, where there are things in place to protect us from the worst of poverty, hunger, and illness, we have to figure out how to live life in a culture that demands that work and money take priority over mental health, social life, and ecological balance. Those of us with a sense of responsibility to the rest of the human species also try to find ways to alleviate the suffering of those elsewhere, and attempt to figure out how the global culture can change in such a way that the comfort of the few is not dependent on the exploitation of the many. For those who don’t live in that world, survival becomes the daily task, and any stability must be used in turn to think of how the culture of the group can change to allow for greater survival, safety, and comfort.

Someone said to me the other day that they believe human beings are fundamentally decent. That may be true, and yet it seems that those with sociopathic tendencies have significantly more influence on the movement of the world than those who live with a degree of consideration of others. The drug cartels and mafiosi, dictators and arms dealers, human traffikers, pedophiles, and serial murderers, all seem to shape the world more than the nurses and doctors, the (un-corrupt) police and teachers, charitable givers and social workers, and just everyday decent people who ask how you are and wait to hear the answer.

Every day, as a thinking human being, we have to decide how to live in such a world.


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