The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part II: Relationships of Work and Time February 19, 2017

In the US, it seems that the first question people ask is, “what do you do?”  When they say that, of course, they are not talking about how you spend your leisure time, but rather, the work that you do for pay. This is the most defining characteristic of modern lives–because this is tied to the thing our culture holds as most sacred: money.  Money is the only metric that has any real value and the pursuit of money drives all else. If you aren’t working in the workforce earning pay, either the work are doing is devalued (as any stay-at-home parent can attest) or there is something very wrong with you (as in, why aren’t you out there earning money?). This current economic system, driven by industrial mindsets surrounding profit and efficiency, gives us a rather poor metric through which to measure ourselves and our value.

 

Last week, I explored a bit of the history of our current cultural value system with regards to work by examining humans’ earlier relationships with work and time. In today’s post, I’m going to bring us into the present age, and explore some of the issues surrounding modern relationships with our work and how these relationships are tied to underlying cultural value systems of exponential growth, the love of money, and the myth of progress. I do so because our modern relationships with work and money are directly linked to our ability to slow down and engage in anything else meaningful: a spiritual path, sustainable living, communing with the trees, etc. I also want to take a moment to thank so many of you for your incredibly thoughtful and useful comments in last week’s post–I hope we can continue to discuss these issues!

 

Modern Overworking and Productivity

As above, so below

As above, so below

David Graeber wrote a controversial essay in 2013 called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” (this essay is free online, but the site that typically hosts it seems to be down, so I found it on the Internet Archive here if you want to read).  He outlines how, for almost a century, with the rise of fossil fuels and the various technologies, we’ve had reports that increased technology combined with more fossil fuel use would lead us to an increase of leisure time.  In fact, in the 1930’s, John Maynard Keynes suggested that by the year 2000, we could have work weeks as little as 15 hours a week.  For those of you keeping track, this assumption is also wrapped up in the myth of progress that I described in detail in last week’s post.

 

In fact, we are technically capable of working a lot less, at least by modern economic metrics (which, for the purposes of this post, I’ll take at face value). An analysis from Eric Rauch of MIT suggests that today, the average “productivity level” of a worker (that is, how much a worker gets done in a day) has gone up tremendously over the last century, particularly since the rise of modern communication systems.  Today’s workers get done in 11 hours what the average worker in 1950 got done in 40; productivity levels have been on a steady rise for the better part of 70 years.  Graeber reports that as late as the 1960’s, people were still expecting those future 15-hour weeks. Yet, the average work week is now over 50 hours for at least half of Americans (and for some, considerably over 50 hours). So where is all of the extra time going?  Why do we seem to be the most unhappy, and most productive, of workers?

 

Most of this seems to stem from our relationship to consumerism and money, not necessarily from work itself.  Julie Schor, economist and author of The Overworked American: The Decline of American Leisure demonstrated that  workers unions often will nearly always choose higher pay and benefits over shorter working hours. The same is true of non-unionized workers: if faced with the choice between less work and more pay, workers almost invariably choose more pay and give up their leisure time as a result. The idea of not taking more work for more pay seems unfathomable to many. This is, I believe, due to the underlying value system that privileges money and little else combined with an assumption that growth (in wages, in standing at one’s job) is a desirable and necessary pursuit.

 

I have a good example of this from my own life: a few years ago at my previous university position, I was asked to consider stepping into a major administrative role much higher up the food chain so to speak, overseeing a large and growing major. This job offered almost a 40% pay increase from what I was currently making. However, this new job was not appealing to me in the slightest. For one, would take me away from all the things I enjoyed about my job, namely my teaching my students and the discovery I was able to do as a researcher, and replace it with more work I didn’t enjoy. For two, it also meant losing my flexible schedule, working many more hours, and it would require that all my working hours be on campus. Consequently, due to the longer daily working hours, I would have had to deal with rush hour traffic twice a day that I had learned to otherwise avoid.  This meant even less time on my homestead, and in winter months, leaving before the sun rose and getting home after the sun set (think of the chickens!).  And so, I gently declined the position. When word got around that I had declined what was clearly a “step up” in my career, my colleagues couldn’t understand why.  No answer I could give was sufficient. Finally, I came up with the one answer always acceptable to academic audiences: I wanted to focus on my research (that is, I preferred the noble goal of making new knowledge and sacrificed higher pay to do so). Giving people the true answer: that I liked the work I currently did,and that I didn’t, gods forbid, want even more work on my plate or a more restricted schedule, was simply not an acceptable answer and giving it would have considerably harmed my reputation. This is because more money and higher status is always the choice you should make given the cultural value system that privileges earnings above most else.

 

One book that really helped me make sense of this decision to keep a lower paying, lower hour, more flexible position was a book called Your Money or Your Life.  This book puts out, in direct terms, a system for monitoring the relationship between your time and your work and draws clear the distinction between the two.  In a series of exercises, you calculate your “real” hourly wage (not what you are paid, but what you actually make after you subtract work-associated costs, transpiration, transportation time, and the downtime/recovery time that is lost after work that you need to recover from it). It also has you monitor your spending and identify ways in which that spending is or is not in line with your value system. When you do these activities, it really helps you change your relationship with your work and your finances.  I’ll talk more about this approach in my third post on this series–but suffice to say, this book helped change my own relationship with money and made me realize that I made the right decision.

 

Another major issue contributing to overwork is that the current work system intentionally privileges overwork. For one, many people fear losing their jobs such that they have to do whatever their employers tell them to, and will, and that means among other things, much longer hours at lower pay (hence one of many reasons that the middle class is shrinking and pay is stagnant). For two, most workers no longer possess much autonomy over their work, and so the amount of work they do is no longer determined by them. With the rising income disparity, more funding is going to boated administrative positions at the cost of the average and lower-paid workers who then suffer  more administrative oversight (see next paragraph).  Finally, the more “productive” one is compared to one’s peers, the more one is rewarded. For those working hourly rates, the situation is even more dire: extremely low pay per hour requires them to work tremendously long hours at unpleasant jobs to take home a pittance. I think the underlying thing that is happening here is that we are supposed to want to work, we are supposed to want to earn good pay, we are supposed to be growing our salaries and our careers and we should be sacrificing all to do so.

 

David Graeber offers his own interpretation to some of the above: the creation of “bullshit jobs,” primarily of the administrative kind. He describes the new jobs like telemarketing and financial services and the “ballooning” of administration” in many areas. In terms of why this is so, Graeber writes, “The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s).”  He argues that many people find large portions of the work they do as meaningless, even if they do this work for pay (and often for a lot of it). Graeber notes that the resentment and “psychological violence” that builds up for those doing “bullshit jobs” and is inflicted upon those actually doing meaningful work.  Those who are doing meaningful work are often doing it for less pay, furthering resentment between all involved. A good example of this is the teaching, nursing, or social work professions: all folks engaging in really important work who do it for less pay and over overseen, increasingly, by administrators in bullshit jobs. Whether or not you buy Graeber’s argument, there is no doubt that today, people feel overworked, underpaid, and generally strained–all the while carrying around an unconscious value system that tells them they should keep earning profits.

 

Another piece of this I’ll note is the rise of the super-specialist system. Wendell Berry discusses this system briefly in the early chapters of the Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. In the specialist model, we have replaced generalist workers that are good at a lot of things and are well rounded (like a small family farmer, handy person, etc) with super specialists who are really good at one thing. Increasingly, we feel the need to go to specialists for every little  thing (finances, health, food, haircuts, you name it). The rise of the specialist system reduces individual autonomy, flexibility, and freedom, requires infinitely more specialized (and in many cases, less meaningful) work.  But I also think that the rise of the specialist system makes us think that we can only be good at one thing (our specialized work) and so we must do that well above all else.

 

I could write more here, but I think my points have been sufficiently made: that workers in today’s system are both products of the system beyond their control (one engineered to make sure they don’t have leisure time), but also often make choices to maximize wealth and thus undermine their own leisure time due to tightening economic circumstances coupled with underlying cultural myths about growth and progress.  This system works such that we are exhausted at the end of the day, and we can’t do much else rather than spend all our time in front of screens pumping advertising that makes us buy things to keep the system chugging right along. Further, we depend on that system and many of us are in serious binds due to economics and decisions we made earlier in life. So now, I want to turn my attention to the costs that this system has on our emotional, spiritual, and physical well being.

 

The Physical Cost of Overwork: Our Nervous System

Physically, the amount of work we are doing, without much downtime and festivity (as explored last week), means that our bodies are less able to handle stress or any serious endeavors beyond just keeping going to our jobs. We begin “living to work” rather than “working to live.” I think the increased productivity levels means that most workplaces are more demanding, fast paced, and intense than even 10 years ago–so when we go, we are working harder, faster, and with less rest. I know in the time I’ve been in the academic workplace, the university is demanding a lot more for a lot less compensation. And this causes us physical harm and daily stress. Additionally, as we age, our bodies are different and cannot always work as much as we want them to. A recent study suggested, for example, that people over 40 are better workers with a three-day work week as opposed to a five day work week.

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

 

I’m going to put on my herbalist hat for just a moment and talk about the automatic nervous system, because it helps illustrate a few key things important to this issue of stress and overwork (and for more on this, I point to Hoffman’s Herbs for Stress and Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy). The automatic nervous system (which is outside of our conscious control) maintains and governs the vital functions of the body like digestion, circulation, heart rate, and breathing. It has two modes: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Earlier in human history, the sympathetic nervous system was used to get us out of immediate danger (oh noes! A big bear is chasing me!) In this state, anything that’s not immediately needed for survival, including our digestive system, our immune system and inflammatory responses, and our sexual system, are essentially shut down.The problem for those of us living as modern humans in these work-intensive and difficult times is that stress doesn’t work like it did in earlier points in human history. Most stress is not stress we can just run away from and relax—rather, its continual and grating. Feelings of being overwhelmed, overworked, and isolated are three key signs of a continual sympathetic nervous system state. Due to modern demands, we make things worse by pushing our bodies to go even further using various common stimulants (sugar, coffee, caffeine, energy drinks—in fact, caffeine mimics adrenaline in the body). Prolonged stress responses encourage the adrenal glands to produce a hormone called Cortisol into the blood, which again mobilizes stored glucose and fat, suppresses the inflammatory response (how the body can heal from damage), and taxes the liver.

 

If the body continues to face stress, the body responds with what is known as  “general adaptation syndrome” – which is essentially a chronically stressed system—with the adrenal glands releasing all of the cortisone they can for as long as they can. Long-term exposure to Cortisol taxes the liver and can lead to digestive problems, muscular tension, poor joint health, high blood pressure, various reproductive system issues. Eventually, if this goes on long enough, the body is exhausted and suffers what is known as “adrenal burnout” or “adrenal exhaustion.” Our bodies cannot go forever on and on, and at this stage, we have severely decreased ability to deal with stress, severe mental and physical exhaustion, and higher susceptibility to illness and disease.

 

If you are feeling exhausted when you are relaxing, you know that your body has been running in sympathetic mode long term. A few other common signs are waking up tired and not feeling rested even after a full night’s sleep or getting sick as soon as you go on vacation. Because so many people are running on General Adaptation Syndrome, when they finally do get back to a parasympthetic state (say on vacation), they immediately fall ill and feel exhausted—this is feeling the true state of affairs in the body. In 2015, for example, 24% of Americans were experiencing “extreme stress” and general stress levels have continued to rise. Given healing, self care, and downtime, the body can fully heal.

 

I believe that the above information is likely why television and other media are such huge attractions.  Adrenally depleted people cannot muster the energy to do much–getting something to eat and crashing with Netflix is what a lot of folks do at the end of the day because they are physically incapable of anything else.  This, too, is a cost of our work.

 

The Non-Physical Costs of Overwork

Schor notes that the decline of American leisure time has resulted in what she calls “loss of independence.” Likewise, literary figure Herman Mellville wrote in a letter to a family member, “Whoever is not in possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence.” The more that our working hours are wrapped up in our jobs or other responsibilities (meaningful or not), and the more time we spend outside of that work as exhausted and adrenal depleted zombies, the less we are able to engage in any meaningful activity that doesn’t have to do with earning a living.  Independence is critical to our success in any endeavor or path beyond our work.

 

The second cost of overwork is wasted potential. This independence, this unstructured time, offers us potential and possibility. We have to determine how we enact that potential, of course, but the potential itself will never be there without the time and energy to do so.  In other words, overworking closes off potential and possibility for us all. Free time is like a bed of soil, freshly prepare for seeds and planting. We can choose to leave it barren or we can choose to cultivate something. But if we don’t even have access to that bed and the energy to plant anything, there is no way anything can grow. I think that humans have the potential for so much–creative gifts and tapping the flow of awen, doing good work in their communities and healing each other, healing the land, spiritual self discovery, deeper understanding–all of the things, really, that make us human.  But we need to the unstructured time to make that a reality.

 

A third thing I think we lose is the ability to learn and grow fully. Having leisure time means you have time to make mistakes, ponder about those mistakes, try some new, experiment, tinker, and so on. This is a really critical part of  learning anything, but certainly, its critical to develop any skill in the bardic art or in homesteading or planning a garden. We have to have time not only to learn, but practice, and on occasion, fail at things so we can get better. When are strained for time, we don’t have the space to do that. Because every bit of time is so precious, failure leads not to introspection but to seeing the time as “wasted” and to frustration.

 

A fourth thing that we lose is the ability to reflect an think carefully  about what is happening in our own lives and in the world around us.  For example,  how many people have you talked to (and maybe this has happened to you) where something major occurs and rather than process it and deal with it, they keep working and never really think about the issue. Maybe this thing is a tragedy and they bury the pain of it, or maybe it is something really wonderful–and neither can be thought about or processed. Losing our ability to be reflective means we don’t integrate lessons and experiences and grow as people. I think this work so critical to us–both in terms of our spiritual paths, but also in terms of our humanity.

 

A fifth thing we lose is the ability to connect with each other or the land. Harried work schedules coupled with adrenal fatigue means we don’t have time for others in our lives: to reach out, to send a card, to have a nice cup of tea by the fire, or to commune with the non-human aspects of the world. It takes time to build and maintain connections, and without them, we are isolated and alone.

 

And I think at this point, I’ve come full circle to the issues that I opened with in my last post: wanting to live in line with my principles and never seeming to have the energy and time to do so.  I’ve explored some of the problems and causes that I think are contributing to these phenomenon (in my own life, in the lives of my friends, and broader for many people).  Next week, we’ll move to the next stage of this process: what to do about it.  In the meantime, friends, I hope you can find some leisure time and enjoy it!

 

Slowing Down the Druid Way: A History of Time February 12, 2017

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

What continues to drive me is to live more in line with my principles: to grow my food, to take care of my basic needs, take charge of my health and healing, and to live fully and honestly with myself in line with the living earth. For a while, as I have discussed on this blog, I ran a homestead as well as worked full time to pay for it, something that I stopped doing about a year and a half ago. Part of why I had to walk away from my homestead in its current model (and regroup) was that it was physically exhausting me, especially as a single woman. I was trying to do everything: hold a full time job, grow my own food, tend my bees, tend my chickens, tend my land, make lots of things, write my blog, engage in my druid studies…and I couldn’t do it all. It was a painful and hard thing, leave a year and a half ago and open myself up to future possibilities. It also has been good in that I’ve been working to confront some of the fantasies that made me pursue things in the direction that I did when that direction was, for me, unsustainable. I had a hard time understanding how my ancestors made it–how they were able to do so many things, when I seemed to be able to do so few effectively.

 

Interestingly, at the time this was going on in my own life, I knew of several other homesteading folks who were in the same bind.  One couple, who were also educators, were selling their land because they couldn’t do it all, and they both had to work to pay for it, and the debt and time debt was really harming them. Like me, they really wanted to live sustainably but found they couldn’t swing it with the jobs and mortgage. Another good friend (another single woman) wanted to buy land, and had the money, but after seeing what I was doing and spending some time, started re-thinking her choices. Yet another friend was also a single homesteader and had no idea how to work and keep his homestead. All of us had also experimented with WOOFing and other kinds of community building but it wasn’t enough to sustain us long-term. And in the time since, I’ve met many people on the path who have expressed similar issues.

 

What I hadn’t fully accounted for when I started homesteading was the toll that trying to live in two competing systems at once did to me; I was trying to literally live two full-time lives at once. The existing system of work and life and taxes didn’t decrease in its demands just because I had a spiritual awakening and wanted to live in line with my beliefs: a mortgage, student loans, the demands of my work, the path and choices I setup for myself in my 20’s still were present and demanding of their attention in my early 30’s. The current system is designed so that it is easiest to live within it, and every step you take out of it is more and more difficult.

 

And so, I’ve been reflecting. What happened? What could I have done differently?  What could any of us done differently? What did I learn so that in the future I can take a different approach? For me, it all kept coming back to resources: my time and energy, debt, and community. I never seemed to have enough time to do even half of what I wanted at the end of the work days, and I spent a lot of my evenings and weekends recovering from my work. And, yet, I knew I was working more efficiently and engaging in a lot more self care than many of my colleagues at the university, who seemed perpetually exhausted. I also never seemed to be making much headway on my debt for the mortgage and on my student loans.  Each time I had gotten a raise, associated costs of life went up (especially health insurance), and I ended up taking home less money than before the raise. I felt like, literally, I was a hamster spinning in a wheel. What was happening here?

 

And as I’ve been working through these questions about my own experience, a deeper set of questions has also emerged: what are the larger cultural systems in place that influenced my experiences and the experiences of others I knew? Culturally, what are the challenges?

 

Obviously, there are a lot of ways I could work through this, but today, I’m specifically going to look at time and leisure. And this is for a simple reason: time and physical energy seems, to me, to be the biggest limiting factor for many people; it was a limiting factor for me, and certainly, for others that I knew who were in a similar place. In fact, time seems to be one of the critical factors between well-intentioned folks who want to do something and people who do can something.  This happens a lot: I talk to people every day practically who really want to live more sustainably, who want to practice permaculture in daily living, who want to reconnect on a deeper level–and who physically can’t do so.  They don’t have the energy, they don’t have the time, and the idea of “making time” sounds exhausting.  I think there’s a lot of harsh criticism out there for people’s honestly on the matter of their time and energy–one form of this criticism is that it sounds like they are making excuses. In the US at least, we have a tendency to criticize an individual for personal failings and deficiencies rather than look at the systems in place that help or harm us.  And yet, we live and work within these systems, and we are inherently bound to them and to the demands they place upon us.  Having a clear understanding of those systems, and what we can do about them for the good of our spiritual practice and everyday living, seems critical.

 

And so, in the rest of this post (and over the next few weeks), I’m going to explore cultural challenges–and solutions–with our relationship with time: how our system literally sucks away our time and makes it much more difficult to engage various kinds of sustainable living and self sufficiency, especially for those who are trying to walk the line between both worlds.

 

Understanding more about this system, and its history, is critical to all of us as we work to respond to the current industrial age, but as we begin to put in place new systems that will help replace this age and transition us back to nature-oriented living. And the key here is transitioning in a way that allows us to thrive: to be healthy (including well rested), happy, be able to take care of some of our own needs, and to work with the land to create abundance and joy in our own lives. So now, let’s take a look at our relationship to time in the broadest view, that is, over hundreds of years of human living.

 

Progress and Time

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along...

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along…

One of the so-called promises of industrialization and consumerism is the idea that things are “better” or “easier” for us now that machines and fossil fuels do so many things. We are told, explicitly as children in school, that we are better off, that we work less than our ancestors, have better lives, and largely benefit from the technologies and goods. Our ancestors of the distant past had hard lives of filth and toil, and we have somehow risen above this. This is one of the cores of the myth of progress: that our lives are better than our ancestors because of our “progress” as a civilization. Wrapped into this myth is the idea that fossil fuels and the current 40-hour workweeks somehow liberated us from crushing labor.  John Michael Greer has written extensively on this subject in his many books and blog, and if you aren’t familiar with his work and want his take on the subject, I’d highly recommend it (his new book After Progress is a particularly good place to start). This myth, the most powerful driving narrative of our present age, spans back at least until the time of industrialization but had its roots much earlier. One of these key pieces of the myth concerns the nature of time.

 

Work and Leisure in the Middle Ages

I’m sure any of you studying the druid traditions and old ceremonies read about 12-day celebrations and week long feasts and think to yourself,  how is this even possible?  Who would have time for this? A 12 day celebration seems like a dream, a fantasy, not the reality of any people, at least within the industrialized era. But evidence exploring pre-industrial cultures, including the Middle Ages in Europe, offers a different tale. In fact, peoples in Europe and elsewhere did have time for multiple 12 day celebrations and feasts because they had an entirely different relationship with time, leisure, and work.

 

A good book on the subject of time and the history of work time is The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor. Schor demonstrates that while the 40-hour work week of the 20th century was an improvement over the 80-hour work week from the 19th century (which she claims may have been the height of human work hours in recorded Western history), there is an implicit assumption that all work weeks were 80 hours in the centuries before the 19th. That is simply not the case. Schor provides good evidence that prior to capitalism, our ancestors had an abundance of time and a leisurely pace of work. She, and others writing on this subject, often point to the Middle Ages as a comparison.

 

Work in the Middle Ages was intermittent, with frequent breaks, even during planting and harvest times–these breaks were considered part of the rights of workers. During periods of downtime between planting and harvest, little work was done at all. In fact, almost one third of the medieval person’s life was spent on holiday: everything from prayer and somber churchgoing to merrymaking and feasting. These included many holidays through the Catholic Church (which was still quite pagan in those days, adopting many of the earlier week-long pagan feasts and traditions). In addition to the publicly sanctioned feasts, a typical middle ages calendar also included the “ale weeks” of various sorts where you might take a week off to celebrate someone’s wedding or birth of a child and the like. The Catholic Church’s doctrine suggested that too much work was a sin, and so, it actively limited how much work anyone could do (it also limited other things, like usury, or the charging of interest which is another topic entirely).

 

With this religious-political system in place, people had a lot of leisure time for all of those holidays and festivals as well as practicing functional crafts and bardic arts. For example, France’s ancien règime guaranteed workers fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays per year (could you imagine that today?) Approximately 5 months of the year were taken off in Spain during the Middle Ages. In England, records from manors in the 13th century suggested that manor  servants worked 175 days a year (likely a 10 or 12 hour day); peasant farmers worked not more than 150 days a year on their land, laborers worked around 120 days, and even miners worked only 180 days.

 

If we average these different data-points from England, we get 156 days of work per person. Today, with the typical “40-hour work week” with standard holidays and two  weeks off for vacation (read, crashing and recovering), the average American work week is about 261 days.  This is nearly one hundred days more than our medieval ancestors.  And even on days we don’t work or are on vacation, how many of us now are tethered to our smartphones and emails–our work follows us wherever we go, in ways even our counterparts from earlier in the 20th century can’t imagine. Now I’m not saying Medieval system was perfect–but on the matter of time, it appears to be a vast improvement from our current state of affairs.

 

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes....

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes….

Change is a constant, and certainly, big changes were coming near the end of the Middle Ages. The Protestants, specifically, the Puritans,  grew in strength and popularity all over Europe; their take on work was the opposite of the Catholic Church’s. Their motto was that hard work was good for the soul, and laziness was the work of the devil. Further, in England, the English Reformation led to major changes in work hours: King Henry VIII seized the monasteries and their land furthering the protestant cause and decreasing the stability of the peasants (who often worked land owned by the monasteries). The changes continued–after industrialization began taking off, a need for bodies in factories led to major shifts in how land was used: in many places, the common people and peasants were driven off lands and replaced with more profitable sheep (see, for example, the Highland Clearances in Scotland).

 

Eventually, these and other factors give rise to the 80-hour work weeks the 18th and 19th century (work weeks suffered by largely displaced peoples–economic refugees). The factory worker’s plight is a tale many of us likely know well (for a good description of this  in the early 20th century, see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Eventually, laws in various countries were introduced, including the current 40 hour work week here in the USA (which certainly seemed like a improvement after the insanity that preceded it).

 

Also, there is some truth in the idea that we have it better now in terms of work from our ancestors a century or two ago. But the idea that pre-industralized peoples worked away their days just to scrape by is hogwash.  It’s hogwash not only in terms of the Middle Ages, but even in terms of the more distant past. And, as I’ll explore next week in more depth, work weeks currently are on the incline, and have been for at least the last 20 years.  Part of this, as we’ll explore next week, has to do with our own choices and relationship to work (things we can control) and part of it may have factors outside of our control.

 

Concluding Thoughts

All of this information helped me put things in perspective–people living close to the land in ages past had very different demands on their time than people attempting it today.  I’m, then, not surprised by my own experiences and those with similar stories that I knew well. For so many of us, it is not a lack of desire, but of time, of resources, and of support–and finding ways to balance these things, while all the while paying for it within this crazy system–is a serious challenge and one deserving of our attention.

 

People living in times past had amounts of leisure time that seem unfathomable to those of us in modern industrialized or post-industralized societies–leisure time in which to make merry, engage in careful handicrafts, or pursue other interests fully. Further, people living in those earlier times also had support from strong and thriving communities.  People living in the distant past also had existing systems in place to aid them and often had carefully cultivated and abundant landscapes in which to work, which is diametrically opposed to our seriously degraded landscapes that we are now working to restore.  In other words, the challenges we face are serious ones, and our responses must, therefore, be thoughtful, deep, and careful. Understanding the systems in which we work, and their demands, can help us better adapt our own plans, especially to those that seek regenerative and nature-based living. Time, especially as it relates to our work demands, is certainly not on our side. There are some alternative approaches and solutions to this–and we’ll keep exploring these in the coming weeks.

 

Shifting Beyond Corporate Exploitation: Meaningful Work and Reconnecting with Ourselves and the Land May 2, 2014

I’ll start by saying that I wasn’t sure I was ever going to post this blog post.  I started working on it over six months ago, and debated posting because it deviated from my usual posts about homesteading, simple living, druidry, and so forth. But as I read and reread this post, I realized that what I had written had everything to do with those things, and are important issues to discuss in regards to sustainable living and spiritual practices–or rather, the things that prevent us from doing such.  So, here it is, in its entirety–the post I almost didn’t publish.

 

Meaningful, Productive work of the past!

Meaningful, Productive work of the past!

The Idea of Meaningful Work

It used to be that for the bulk of humanity, “work” meant daily interaction with the land and the home cottage industry (that is, the work of producing goods for home use, such as clothing, medicine, etc).  In agrarian societies, this work entailed being out every day in the fields and forests, tilling the soil, growing your crops, hunting wild game, harvesting wood for buildings and fencing, saving seeds, milking cows, brewing ale, tending your herds and livestock, cooking from your own pantries, stocking those pantries, rendering soap, doing laundry, and so forth.  Most of human labor was, in fact, wrapped up in food production (with traditional societies engaging in anywhere from 70-90% of the workforce in the production of food) and in providing for one’s own continued survival.  One’s work, then, was directly related to one’s relationship with the land.  If the land was well-tended, those on the land prospered.  Balance and long-term sustainability were the keys upon which survival rested.

 

With the rise of industrialization, people moved from the farms to the factories in the cities, which promised faster production and reduced the input of human labor (for example, the invention of the spinning machine in the UK). As Upton Sinclair describes in The Jungle, however,these positions weren’t always all that they were hoped to be or imagined.  Regardless of the conditions in the factories, the idea if meaningful work drastically shifted, and now, we are at the extreme opposite end of that spectrum.  What is meaningful work today?  How do we engage in it?

 

In this post, I’d like to use the framework of “meaningful work” I want to investigate the issues surrounding work, spirituality, and sustainability in this post today by examining the working lives of two of my friends. Both of my friends walk a druidic path and both were working under conditions that challenge their relationship with the natural world, their sense of well-being, and their ability to maintain a meaningful spiritual life. Over a period of time, they have both shared their experiences and stories with me.  Since writing, both have found different employment, so they are at no risk in my posting these stories. I don’t know how widespread or representative their experiences are on the broader scale, but I suspect that they are pretty widespread, and I want to highlight their experiences and talk about some of the potential consequences to spiritual life and sustainability.

 

Defining Meaningful Work

I’d like to posit a definition–meaningful work is work with meaning and substance, it allows one to be positively emotionally involved, feel fulfilled, and gain benefits beyond financial.  Meaningful work also allows enough time that spiritual pursuits, quality of life, and overall happiness also are embraced.  Meaningful work likely means different things to very different people–we all need to explore our own idea of what meaningful work is, and how we can best engage in it.  What I will say, however, is that a good portion of our society is not, unfortunately, able to engage in meaningful work at this time.

 

The Story of Sage: Exploitation of Persons

One person, who we will call “Sage,” works at a major fabric and craft retailer, one that has a presence in most major cities and small towns around the country. Her retailer has close to 30 employees. Almost all of the employees work between 35-39 hours a week (39 hours a week to keep them from getting benefits, including access to healthcare). The human consequences of the 39 hour workweek are real and severe: rising healthcare costs, no financial security for their future, and not being paid a livable wage puts them in a situation where they are living from paycheck to paycheck with no end in sight (and this is certainly a broader trend within retail workers in the USA).  In fact, despite working hard at her job, Sage is forced to get food stamps to help pay for her groceries. This 39-hour a week practice is very widespread and yet the human consequences of it are not discussed nor considered–rather, we have laws put in place to uphold these practices and maximize profits, rather than having paws put in place to protect workers. For Sage, who has a college education but cannot find work in her field, this means working multiple low-wage jobs in order to make ends meet.

 

The other thing about Sage’s job is her lack of autonomy or control over her schedule. Despite the fact that her retail business is open the same hours each week, have the same shipments and work to do each week, and know well the work that is to be done each week, nobody who works there–except for upper management–has a consistent schedule.  A week before she is to work, Sage gets a schedule–it varies from day to day, number of hours worked, and so forth.  If Sage wants to go out of town, she has to go beg to her manager for time off (months in advance) and be at the manager’s mercy as to whether or not she’ll get the time off (and won’t know till the week she is scheduled to work).  This makes planning trips, family events, doctor’s appointments, even a simple evening at the theater, an impossibility.  She will never know if the manager is in a good mood, and if the manager will grant her request. Likewise, on her days off she is frequently called into work and, if she says “no” too many times, she may not have a job at all. This means that at any given moment, Sage is at the beck and call of an employer who does not even respect her enough to offer her a livable wage nor healthcare or other benefits.  Why does this employer act like it owns Sage?  Does it, in fact, own her?

 

As a druid, Sage’s situation is further complicated because of her holidays.  For example, last year when she asked for Samhuinn off, she was asked “is that real?” and “I don’t think you are telling me the truth.” After providing some documentation that Sage’s holiday was real, the manager said “well if you are getting this ‘new year’ off, you are working all of new years here.” I suspect that many druids in America who are open about our spiritual path have had such uncomfortable conversations, and often are unable to get our basic holidays off.

 

And thus, Sage works. Sage works for a pittance of wages, enough for her to rent and eat, but not enough for anything else.  She dreams of opening her own business, an art studio or a farm, but with little savings because of her working conditions, this dream continues to be far off in the distance.  She wishes for these things to be able to engage in meaningful work, work that is fulfilling and allows her to be prosperous.

 

The Story of Rue: Money as Entrapment

Now we’ll turn to Rue, who, despite having a full-time job with benefits and a much more comfortable salary, suffers at the hands of rather tyrannical employers. He works for a major financial firm who collects debt in the USA; the firm itself has a reputation well known for being unethical and have broken multiple laws (they pay their fines, continue to be in business, and continue to break the law). Rue also describes  the mind games, berating, and other mental abuse that upper management inflicts upon the employees.

 

Rue, who works at a manager at this firm, is in the same entrapped state that Sage finds herself in. Rue works insane hours (often 80-100 per week, including being asked to work several 14-hour shift days in a row or being asked to come in at 7am after working 7am to 10pm the previous day). For this employer, the volume of calls, rather than the quality of work, is what matters, so bringing employees in for longer hours means more profits on their bottom line–again, not caring about the the quality of life for employees. The consequences of this on Rue’s spiritual and personal life are obvious–when he finally is able to drag himself home after a 14-hour work day, he has no energy left to do anything.  He has very little time to spend with himself, his family, or his friends. He has no time to sit under a tree and commune. He becomes, in his words, like a zombie, a half-person, whose soul is ensnared by the corporation and who lacks the most important of human qualities–freedom.

 

There is also the matter of how much the employees make and the circumstances under which they make it–another form of entrapment. Unlike Sage, who makes a pittance and can’t afford much, Rue’s firm uses an opposite and equally entrapping approach–making lots and lots of money and bribing employees to higher performance quotas with lots of glittery consumerist goods, like plasma TVs (Rue tells me has has several of them, unopened, in boxes in his living room). The commission system ensures that workers will do everything in their power to collect the debt rather than seek solutions for those they are calling; with each account they close, they gain bonuses. Rue describes to me the call he made to a single mother who cannot pay her student loans and the ethical challenge is faced with–between giving her a year of deferment or demanding part of her wages she needs to make ends meet. Since “all calls are recorded for quality assurance purposes” if he gives out too many deferments, not only will he be called into an upper-manager’s office and given a talking to, he risks the financial implications of not meeting his monthly quota.

 

The amount that that these employees take home is in itself entrapping. Most of the people who work at Rue’s company make way more money than they would in other lines of work–money becomes the carrot at the end of the stick. This is a job that can be done with good training but does not require college degrees–so its better money than most people could get doing anything else. Despite the negative nature of the work environment, the mental abuse that they suffer and that they are required to inflict on others, people continue to work there because the money is just too good. Once you start making money at that standard of living, it becomes harder to get out of it, harder to see beyond the glittery objects, plasma televisions, and high class apartments in the big city lifestyle. Its a lifestyle that sucks you in–materialism, consumerism, and the promise of more and more “stuff” to fill the empty void.  Is this work meaningful? Is it rewarding?  According to Rue–not in the slightest.

 

Broader Thoughts

In The Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges discusses how corporations and CEOs now exhibit psychopathic behaviors (a discussion alive and well on the web here and here).  Psychopathic leadership in corporations is more common than ever. We see this at work in the stories of Rue and Sage–corporations who treat their employees more like automatons than people, don’t respect them enough to either pay them a living wage (in the case of Sage) or provide them with enough autonomy and consistency of schedule in order to do anything meaningful (in the case of both).  The mental abuse that both describe in their work environments is appalling, and leaves them drained and exhausted when not working.

 

It makes me wonder–how many people out there are working in these kinds of situations, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, being unable to engage in any kind of meaningful work? How many of them do this and have no time for anything else?  I look at my students, many of whom are in this same situation, trying to balance getting an education which is supposed to get them a better life (and lead to meaningful work), and working 2 or 3 different jobs to pay their tuition and living expenses. It is no wonder that television ends up being a big distraction–the mental energy required for TV (even when compared to reading) is much less.  Its a distraction, a way to wind down at the end of the day, a way to get wrapped up in the illusion of something else.  But when you are in this exhausted mindset, unable to make meaningful time for yourself, what else can you accomplish? You don’t have the time for deep spiritual insights, developing deep connections with each other or the land around you.  You don’t have three hours to sit under an ancient maple and hear its stories.  When we depend on the corporation for everything–livelihood, food, water, shelter, transportation, entertainment–we give up our power and autonomy.  We give up our freedom and inspiration.  It is, perhaps, the great tragedy of our age–what we exchange in order to live and survive in 21st century America.  The work is not meaningful, its not fulfilling, and its not really doing anything to better our world or our communities.

 

I think its important to point out that this phenomenon is no different than what we see corporations doing to animals and our lands.  Oil companies engage in unsafe practices that cause oil spills, chemical companies dump pollutants into our rivers and oceans, mountains are removed and ecosystems are destroyed for the sake of profits, natural gas companies inject the very land beneath our feet with toxic chemicals to extract fossil fuel, the list goes on and on.  Livestock, from angora rabbits to chickens to cows, also suffer a similar fate.  They are boxed in, fattened up, and treated as mere objects.  From this perspective, things seem very dire indeed…but are they?

 

Meaningful Work and Viable Alternatives

If engaging in meaningful work is a goal that can help us be more mindful of our world around us, give us time for creative expression, and allows us once again a closer relationship with nature, how do we find such work? Of course, one has to figure out how to pay one’s bills, one’s taxes, and put food on the table.  With land being so expensive, the old American dream of homesteading on the frontier really isn’t viable for many anymore.  And yet, shifts back in the direction are certainly taking place. With the steady rise in farmer’s markets (even year round ones, like we have here in Michigan), people have more opportunity than 10 or 20 years ago to grow/produce products that they love and make a living doing it.  Is local entrepreneurship the answer? Can entrepreneurial opportunities, farmer’s markets and the like allow people like Rue and Sage to reclaim the idea of meaningful work from yet another commodity that a corporation distributes to something that they organically create for themselves? I know lots of people who want to do this, and some that are taking that step and doing it–but its a scary place to step into.  What if the business fails? How will you pay the bills and make ends meet?

 

Farmer's market products

Farmer’s market products

I think about some of the farmers that I’ve met in the last few years at our local farmer’s markets. One couple who regularly come to our local market specialize in organic free range chickens and eggs.  They told me their story about how they were both investment bankers, making six figure salaries. They decided they’d had enough, left their jobs, and became organic farmers.  They are making maybe 20% of what they had made as bankers, but they were healthy, happy and living a life that they dreamed.  Another close friend used to teach, got fed up with the school system and politics, and now is a full-time organic farmer selling some of the most beautiful veggies and herbs I have ever seen. I think about several others I know, people in their mid to late 20’s, who decided that college educations were too expensive, and became landscape designers, drink specialists, mushroom growers, and more.  It seems that there ARE alternatives out there, but that they take the right kind of community and resources to begin.  And they take a very long time to become profitable enough to not need to do other kinds of work.

 

Is the public ready to support these kinds of endeavors on a larger scale–that is, pay the organic chicken farmer 3.50/lb per bird rather than 1.00/lb per bird if that bird is raised ethically and humanely?   I think the ultimate decision about whether these kinds of  shifts that people are taking towards more meaningful work succeed is how willing the broader community is in supporting such work.  With the rise in farmer’s markets and other alternatives, I think that people broadly are starting to “buy local” and recognize the importance of keeping their money in the local community.  And with these shifts, we all gain more opportunities to engage in meaningful work.