As the days shorten, I’ve been working to keep my head above water. Although my spirits often feel liberated and expansive, the state of mind is unstable. My psyche is over-ballasted, and foundering comes easily.
It doesn’t help to live in such a grinding materialist culture, with its competitive measures of worth, in which every human quality is ledgered as asset or liability in the global economy.
As the beneficiary of disability income left over from my work as a surgeon at a major HMO, I’m fortunate. Yet being able to survive without paid employment doesn’t always feel like a blessing. Instead, I compare myself with others my age who have spent decades in their careers, who’ve made names for themselves. I feel unproductive and ashamed.
In moments of clarity I derail these feelings by challenging our civilization’s value structures. The idea that a lack of productivity is shameful is one of those toxic messages few question. Yet for at least 100,000 years humans lived peaceably with nature. Although life was no doubt arduous–and often brief–many generations must have enjoyed afternoons in the sun. After the day’s meals had been procured they rested easily, without guilt. At some point, ambitious striving became vaunted as the mark of a worthy being. The result? Our species, like a fungal overgrowth, is now digesting the planet’s surface to the detriment of many other life forms and its own future prospects.
Not that startling invention hasn’t been accomplished along the way, like poetics, architecture, and thermonuclear weaponry. But haven’t we seen enough to feel uneasy about the way society exalts productivity? Doesn’t ceaseless industry degrade the biosphere? Doesn’t this appear unwise?
Well, I’m not an activist and have no power to reshape society. But I can revise my own thinking, and often these days I’m able to feel grateful for having time to care for the body, nurture the mind, and elevate the soul. Yes, during oppressive hours I wonder what led me so far from the beaten path. But more often I recognize the vitality of a restful life.
What if no one worked more than twenty hours a week? What if those with sufficient resources worked without pay? There’d be jobs and leisure enough for all. People might learn to consume less and appreciate more. They might begin to treat themselves and others with care. They might find, as I have, that free time enables one to work on emotional maturation.
Could we imagine a future society that valued the soul’s growth more than the economy’s? Frankly, I have a hard time picturing history going that direction. It’s easier to imagine civilization staggering along in the same mode, even as its lights grow dim.
Still, recognizing the corruption at modernity’s core helps me forgive myself for failing to measure up. After all, ‘measuring up’ is a function of the metric used. By criteria of works, wealth, and fame I’ve fallen short. But if I look at how my mood fluctuations no longer uproot me, how I feel more appreciative of others, how I’ve discovered a clarity that would have been unimaginable just ten years ago, I can claim authenticity, if not attainment. I have probed my deepest conflicts; I have done my best to resolve them.
If my career hadn’t collapsed, if I hadn’t ended up in psychiatric wards, I might still be an anxious narcissist trying to prove himself better than others. Would looking impressive on the outside make up for feeling empty on the inside?
I doubt it. And that doubt may reveal something about civilization itself. In fact, I’d go further and suggest it tells us something about the entire human project. Satisfaction grows not in in the sand of outward gains, but in the loam of inward ones. There isn’t anything wrong with wanting to succeed in the world, but we must recognize that Life asks more of us, and also less: more affirmation and less ambition, more presence and less productivity.
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