My first November blog from elsewhere

Originally published on Nov. 6th (mostly written on Nov. 5th):

And this is what we call “Fun”

Friday evening, and I’m sitting by myself in one of the cheaper cabins on the good ship Galaxy. I sort of got suckered into chaperoning a bunch of 17-year-olds on a national high school student organization’s “educational cruise.” Altogether there are over 200 teenagers on this 24-hour excursion, but only 8 which I’m officially responsible for. Near as I can tell, my own charges are behaving (like) themselves, but some of the kids from other schools are starting to get a bit wound up in the hallway. In any case, other than being here to give them a sense that authority figures are watching, and being ready to inform their parents of what has happened after the fact, there’s really not much for me to do about things. So I block out certain sounds and sensations and try to get some work and some writing done here.
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the whole philosophy of enjoyment or fun. I’m not talking about happiness here, in the sense of having an overall rewarding and fulfilling life, but the process of getting a charge out of the present moment on a regular basis. If we’re not having much fun in life, what should we be doing about it? How much responsibility does each of us have for keeping our own lives from sucking on a day-to-day basis? 

(A group of girls down the hallway start into their own rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but sort of lose momentum at “Momma, oooo-oo-oo-oooo”.)

There have been a lot of pop psychological initiatives lately saying that you shouldn’t wait for life to happen to you and give you what you are hoping for in some lame, abstract sort of way; you should take the bull by the horns and become the master of your own life. You should authentically live in such a way that you can be satisfied with and proud of your life. If your day-to-day, week-to-week routine is not the sort of thing that you’d be satisfied having as the last days or weeks of your life, you should make whatever changes are necessary to get it that way.

I’m not sure I can sign off on all that, but there are certain aspects of such a view that I’d really like to believe. I’d like to think that my satisfaction doesn’t have to depend on whether or not a fundamentally screwed up and obviously unfair world economic system has enough slack in it, or long-term justice to it, to reward someone like me for doing the sorts of things that I’d like to have the chance to do more regularly. I’d like to believe that all the things which have been taken from me, and all of the disappointments I have experienced, won’t stop me from being able to have joy in life. I’d like to believe that the trivial stresses and irritations which take up so much of my conscious thought could be disposed of just as a matter of my own will. I just don’t have that sort of faith yet.

(I tour around the deck to see the city lights of Stockholm, and to satisfy myself that I’m not neglecting the little party animals out there.)

Part of the essential question is the balancing act in terms of what we call “delayed gratification”. Those who wish to blame the poor for their own poverty often state that the reason these people are poor is because they lack this very capacity: they don’t learn to work hard and save up for things. When they have a chance to indulge themselves now, rather than holding out for greater rewards in the future, they never hesitate to go for the indulgence. Then when the resources run out, their families go hungry, they live without some basics and they draw on the welfare system… or so political conservatives tell us. So are these personal satisfaction gurus, who recommend continuous self-fulfillment, effectively trying to break down the moral fiber of somber, hard working people? Well, maybe.

Or maybe they’re just trying to balance out those on the other extreme: the workaholics who are delaying gratification so far that they have entirely forgotten what sort of gratification they were working towards in the first place. “Successful people” have quite often driven themselves to heart attacks really for no reason at all as far as personal satisfaction is concerned. Too intense a work ethic can be just as self-destructive for a person as smoking. If those intensified sorts of people would maybe back off a bit on chasing their meaningless goals and live a bit more in the moment, life could be a lot more rewarding for them, and a lot more sane for people around them.

Another way of looking at the matter is that some people need to recognize what exactly their primary motivation for work is, and many times it is something entirely other than the money they can earn in the process. For the most fortunate of souls, the work that they do is its own reward; because they can do it freely in the way they want to do it, because they get the feeling that they’re good at it, and/or because they believe that in this job they have the possibility of “making their mark” in the world. (Credit is due for Daniel Pink on this one, for pointing out these three aspects of worker motivation recently.) The money is entirely secondary. This largely has to do with the issue of happiness by way of confidence that I wrote about last year, with just a little bit of personal control thrown in for good measure. If someone is getting those sorts of satisfactions, perhaps they need to just stop and smell their own roses (by any other name) a bit more. Needless to say, however, not everyone is fortunate enough to have such roses.

So what about those who do joyless work that they’re not particularly good at, under constant performance pressure, just because someone has to do it, with little hope of “getting ahead” in the process? This can include the plight of the working poor in slums around the US, and in other less advanced countries, but it is not limited to these cases. Mid-level white collar workers, with big debt burdens related to their struggle to rise to the status they have, can very often find themselves trapped in stressful routines that offer precious little in terms of emotional reward, and provide no greater career hope than that their jobs will continue in a steady enough fashion to enable their families to avoid financial crises. How are these people supposed to find that illusive day-to-day joy that self-help gurus so strongly recommend? Do those stressing themselves out there in joyless, dead end jobs have some sort of responsibility to themselves to change jobs, or even lives? If so, how?

(Another stroll around the halls. The security guards tell me that they have one high school kid locked up in the ship’s drunk tank, but not one from our school. Everything else is loud but well behaved. A Moomin character actor is in the karaoke bar, in costume, singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” in Swedish. Worth a smile.)

I know (second and third-hand) a few former white collar workers who dropped it all a generation ago to become manual laborers and subsistence farmers in northern New England. I can sort of respect that in a basic existential sort of way, but it’s not for everyone––especially not for those with banks owning a sizeable chunk of their back sides––if they want to do things legally. And besides the financial risks of trying to toss your whole career out and start over again, there’s the factor of fulfilling the social expectations of coworkers and family members. Making radical changes can do a lot of damage to people you care about if those people have built a large part of their lives around the expectation that you will remain boringly and predictably consistent in the sort of position you have relative to their needs. Sometimes connections with those people can be more important than a stronger sense of self-fulfillment career-wise. Sometimes this is the factor that prevents people from being what they truly want to be. Sometimes recognizing the satisfaction that these relationships provide can give a person the strength he or she needs to keep going, but sometimes they just create a deep sense of conflict when it comes to considering future options.

But the big problem with all of this talk of self-directed change is that it adds the stress associated with a sense of responsibility, which in turn goes with an impression of freedom of choice, to the already over-stressed individual’s mental load. A good example of this phenomenon is the story Barry Schwartz told in his 2005 TED talk, talking about the stress of buying blue jeans in the postmodern era. When asked by a sales clerk what type of jeans he wanted, he replied, “the kind that used to be the only kind.” Then after extensive shopping and trying out the various new options, he found jeans that were actually much better for him than what he used to buy, but he left the store feeling less satisfied because of the heightened expectations that the selection process had given him. Contrast that with the experience of many prison camp survivors from various tragic events in world history: going through unspeakable pain, hardship and humiliation, they still found themselves with remarkable peace of mind during the experience, because they weren’t really expecting anything else, and their own choices could not have provided them with anything better. So if acknowledging a certain level of helplessness provides some people with an ironic sense of peace, why do we want to take that away from the modern wage slave by presenting him with the dubious claim that he really has a choice in the matter?

(Another walk around on deck. This time I sit through the second half of a big lady troubadour’s set, finishing off with CCR’s “Proud Mary”––coincidentally talking about this same topic of decisions to make radical changes in one’s life. Most of the high school students seem to be in their cabins or in the karaoke bar at this point. Noise levels are moderate.)

But then there’s the matter of how much of our joy has to do, not with our careers and our social situations, but with our mental attitudes towards what we take seriously and what we don’t. How far can we find joy by simply freeing our minds (not necessarily even using chemical aides in doing so)? How far can we get away with going through the more meaningless or dull routine parts of our lives on autopilot, focusing our mental energies on things that bring us more of a sense of peace, purpose and fulfillment? How far can each of us find strength, love and acceptance within ourselves––or perhaps through our religious faith––to keep ourselves going when the support we get from people around us is less than what we might hope?

This too I think of as a balance question. Of course we can’t let our joys be completely dependent on external circumstances or the approval of others, but there’s also something problematic about living within one’s own private reality, shared by no one else around you. In its extreme forms this latter tendency is called schizophrenia; in its milder forms it might be called emotional masturbation: trying to give yourself sensations that you could imagine coming from someone else, if you would actually have that sort of “someone else”. Not that anyone is truly immune to such self-deceptive forms of personal gratification, literally or figuratively, but we all sort of hope that our lives will not get stuck at that sort of level.

All in all then there are certain aspects of our joy in life that really should come from the interactions we have with other people; and the respect, influence and importance we are able to get from those interactions. Sometimes life genuinely does suck in these terms, and when that’s the case there’s something healthy about being able to admit it to yourself. Sometimes you do need to look into the possibilities of making changes; sometimes you need to find legitimate forms of escapism to ease your pain; sometimes you just have to allow your human limits in adapting to unfortunate and even unnatural situations to be tested to their limits. In all of these cases, however, there is a definite value in being able to hope that things will get better, whether or not there’s anything you personally can do about it.

Life is all about hope in this sort of way. When you reach the end of hope for things getting better in your life, all you’re left with is a hospice situation: trying to limit the pain and indignity of the inevitable bitter end of life itself. Eventually all of us will reach that point, but I strongly believe that it should be procrastinated as far as possible for everyone. Keep hope alive then. Believe things will get better. And keep doing what you can to make them better, without blaming yourself all the time for your limitations in that process.

(Sounds of kids coming back from the karaoke bar echo in the hall outside my cabin. Maybe I’ll just let them stumble to wherever they’re headed at this early morning hour without any supervision. I’ll just save this text and call it a night. I’ll edit and upload it in the light of a new day.)

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Filed under Education, Ethics, Happiness, Philosophy

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