Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Work and Lifestyle

Work is a strange concept.

Not all by itself, mind you. To work is either to produce something or to serve someone. To work is to discipline one's mind and body toward a particular goal. Athletes work when they train to defeat their competitors. Mothers work when they care for their children. Artists work when they produce their art. Gardeners work when they plant, weed and harvest their plants. Administrative assistants work when they type a letter their employer has dictated. That's simple.

But we have another concept of work in our age, and it has to do with the division between work and leisure. This division isn't about how hard one works, but rather the result of the work. There are gardeners and artists who spend hours a day at their craft, honing their skills and perfecting their labor to create magnificent beauty and even practical use-- food to eat or a picture for water-- yet it is leisure, not work. Why is this? Because it is not laboring toward the basics of the modern lifestyle.

Most of us have a pretty basic concept of work: that which obtains for us a paycheck, or at least a livable income if one is self-employed. The object of work is to obtain money and the object of that money is to maintain the modern lifestyle. It doesn't matter how difficult it is to raise three children, the stay-at-home mom doesn't "work" in this use of the term. Nor does the artist or gardener who doesn't get paid.

So the CEO who spends part of his working day at the golf course "works", but his wife who has to care for a toddler and an infant at home, cleaning after them, cooking, caring, comforting, making sure that they don't eat any pencils left on the table by her thoughtless, and "overworked" husband, doesn't "work".

And as much as we might often decry the hypocrisy between these two differing definitions, our society grants honor to those who "work" in the second definition, not the first. A man might have two children: His daughter works as a computer programmer, who spends most of the day lounging about, hanging out on Facebook, talking with non-cyber friends in the office, playing cards and then, in the last hour of the day, writes out a set of brilliant programming. She gets paid a fair salary. His son also spends his day in front of the computer, but he works eight to twelve hours a day writing his novel. He hasn't found a publisher yet, but he has sent out parts of his manuscript to many. He has gotten positive feedback from others, including some in the writing industry, but fiction is a difficult and crowded market. He lives at home, but he knows his break is just around the corner. The father is proud of his daughter because of the income she receives, even though she works little. But he considers his son lazy and no good because all he does is sit in front of his computer, writing.

Honor is always given to the successful, even if they don't deserve it. Honor is granted, not to those who produce, not to the disciplined, not even to those who excel at their craft. Honor is given to those who more successfully have the means to live the lifestyle that is approved by one's community.

To not live in accordance with the community's lifestyle is a grave sin against the community. You can be working positively for a community, serving the community, producing things that is beneficial for the community, but you will always be outside the community unless you live their lifestyle, or a version of their lifestyle they approve of. The middle class version of this is to have a job, receive a paycheck, use the money to pay one's bills, rent and groceries. One must have a permanent place to live, electricity, running water, and a phone.

People can live in a different lifestyle. We know that people in third world countries do. We know, intellectually, that some live in mud huts, but it is difficult for us to imagine it. We know that some people choose to change their lifestyle for idyllic or spiritual reasons, but we know that we could never be like them and that, fundamentally, they "aren't one of us." The polite way of saying this is, "Oh, I could NEVER do that."

The impolite way is to say, "Why don't those people just work?" Which is said about the homeless all the time.

This is the source of the false idea that the homeless are "lazy". They have a different lifestyle, one not acceptable to the middle class. Of course, anyone who really thinks about the homeless lifestyle know that it takes a lot of effort to be homeless. You walk for miles from your camp to a meal site. You stay all day in the weather. You may not get much sleep on any given night.

You might recycle or dumpster dive, which means walking across the city to collect items, climbing in and out of trash cans. If you recycle, then you bring the items back to one or more stores in order to get paid for your work, which might get you a few bucks an hour.

And you are doing the community a service if you perform this kind of labor. If you dumpster dive, then you are taking things out of a landfill in order to reuse it in a productive manner. If you are recycling then you are taking items that would have gone to a landfill and turning it back to industrial use. Other homeless spend their days cleaning trash off of sidewalks.

But rather than look at the "work" of the homeless, most people only see the non-"work" of the homeless. They are considered part of a "leisure class" those who are living off of society without serving it. It isn't true, however. The fact that their labor isn't leading them to a lifestyle that they are comfortable with. The amount of effort required to live a homeless lifestyle doesn't impress most of the populace. Rather, they are disgusted that anyone would live in a third world environment in their golden empire.

The fact is, most people on the street don't want to be there, but all their effort has done nothing to obtain the middle class lifestyle. But even if some do choose to be on the street-- who are we to judge? Who are we to say that everyone must work 40 hours a week to support someone else's goals and to prop up their inflated lifestyle so we can have an inflated lifestyle of our own?

Being homeless is hard work. Really. But perhaps it might be worth it if we took on some of the simplicity of that lifestyle on our own.

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