In this blog I’m going to talk about a subject that may contain a great deal of what I like to call “Brandon punk rock morals”. I may come off a bit hippie liberal anti-capitalist douche. I AM a bit of all of those things but not entirely. I’m not anti-capitalist but I am anti-some of the things we practice culturally in America related to jobs and capitalism that bring us mental, emotional and other harm. I’m not necessarily saying I have a better answer and I’m only quietly muttering about what a better system might be. I am saying, out loud and proud however, that there are damaging parts of our occupational culture that can be decreased if not done away with entirely.
First, the hippie liberal douche part; Look around you. Everything you see was bought and sold…the drywall, the paint that lay on the drywall, the wood that comprises the frame on which the drywall hangs, the trucks that brought all those materials to the construction site, the gas that enabled them to do so and the machines that sucked it from the ground and later refined it. And speaking of that last part, it’s also worth mentioning that in each step of this process, an environmental resource was negatively impacted in some way. With every financial transaction, a further, but quieter price, is paid by the earth. Author Mark Boyle discusses this in great depth in his book “The Moneyless Manifesto” and I’d highly encourage you to read it.
There was a time in our species where jobs and money didn’t exist, a time when we simply took from the natural environment only what we needed and nothing more just like other animals do. I’m not necessarily saying it was a better time. I consider air conditioning to be one of the most important THINGS to EXIST, EVER. I’m putting it up there with love and charity and world peace and all those other grandiose ideas. It’s in the top 5 for sure. I’m not saying that I personally would want to live in that harmonious, balanced but un-air conditioned time, I’m just saying it existed. But, we act as if it didn’t. That’s where the problem starts. Ever heard yourself or someone else say “I HAVE to have a job”? No. No you don’t. Having a job is not mandatory nor is it even necessary in the grander scheme of things. It’s only that it benefits one in the current social/cultural situation in which we find ourselves. It’s an arbitrary product of how we’ve constructed our society. And it’s a rather new thing. If we look at humanity on the level of our existence as a species, there’s vastly more time behind us where we DID NOT conceptualize the world in terms of money and jobs than time before us. Perhaps it’s cross cultural but especially as Americans, we view our vocation as a central part of who we are as an individual. For some of us, it’s the main things that defines us. For others, it’s the only thing. “What do you do” is one of the first questions we ask a person when we first meet them. We’re trying to get a sense of who they are and the job they do, it’s suggested, is a great answer to this question. It’s important. So important that it forms a large part of the narrative of our lives; go to school, get a good job, buy a big house, drive a nice car. This is what we’re taught. If you follow those rules, you’re a success. You’re “good”. Conversely, if you don’t follow that line, you’re bad. You’ve failed. Something’s wrong with you. You didn’t work hard enough. You’re lazy. It’s your fault. Shame on you.
Recently, I visited Central and Eastern Europe. While in the Czech Republic, I visited The Museum of Communism. One of the ideas that stood out was the term “Shock Man”. As the museum materials explained, in the years of communism in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), the Shock Man was a man who worked well beyond his capacity with enthusiasm and vigor for the state. His productivity was in the order of hundreds of percentiles. He surpassed his fellow man with his output levels in a drastic fashion. It was shocking how hard he worked. The Shock Man, was how a man was supposed to be, went the Communist Party propaganda. He was the ideal of what a good citizen looked like. A success story was a man who worked well beyond his boundaries in service of the state. This was what morality and goodness looked like. Due to the blatant failures of the communist regime in that part of the world, it’s easy to look back and see that this was manipulation. The common man was worked to death and those at the top benefited from an eager, disposable labor force. It’s easy now to sit back and look at this period of time and see how open and obvious the corruption and oppression was. We can dismiss it as an afterthought. Obviously this was trickery and manipulation by an evil government. Everyone knows that right?
One version of the occupational situation of practically every American is this: A powerful entity exists with the sole purpose of obtaining the most productivity out of an individual or group of individuals for the least amount of all forms of compensation with the end goal of securing the most possible resources and power. (This sounds familiar. Is there an echo in here?) While I don’t believe that there’s some dark, mysterious, figure that sits upon an exalted throne somewhere behind the scenes, pulling the ropes of society whilst rubbing his hands together in a fiendish, cartoon like manner, I do believe that we have essentially the same result in modern America. Like the Shock Man of communism, a cultural system that says “Get a good job, be productive, make lots of money, buy a big house and lots of stuff or you’re a failure” mostly benefits those in power. And we’ve bought into it entirely.
Let’s add another idea to those mostly unspoken messages: Go to school, get a good job and if you do, you will be happy and fulfilled. Nearly every day in my practice, I hear client’s talk about how much anxiety, depression, stress and general negativity is created in direct relation to their job. Sometimes, it’s due to too much work, sometimes it’s not enough work. Sometimes, it’s due to a particular other person they work with. Sometimes it’s the uncertainty of their work and whether or not it will be there next week. Sometimes it’s the certainty that it will be there next week and forever and that they’ll be doing the same monotonous tasks for all eternity. Sometimes it’s the lack of pay. Sometimes it’s simple hatred for the nature of the job itself. The complaints come in as many varieties as there are paint colors in the Home Depot paint department. For many, this is a major part of where the problem comes from; “I’m doing exactly what I was told to do and it’s not working…I don’t feel satisfied, I don’t feel happy.” The simple reason for this, is that it’s a lie.
Before I go further, let me digress. I’m not suggesting that we all quit our jobs. I’m not saying that finding meaning in one’s work is a bad thing. I’m not suggesting that advances and innovations that have come of the occupational world are inherently evil. Again, I like AC. I’m glad some dude invented it and I’m glad that some massive corporation now produces them on a large scale. It’s a good thing. I have a lot of things that I’ve bought with the money from my job that I’m very happy to have. If I have to work a few long hours to keep my house in a perpetual state of cool, it’s worth it. If I have to have a job to put food in my daughter’s belly, sign me up. I like my job and I’m glad I have it. “It’s how I manage to live indoors and eat cooked food” as one client put it. But for the most part, that’s as far as it goes. It’s a means to an end. I do find meaning in what I do but it’s not the most important thing about me. being a therapist is a large part of my identity. But I’m also a father, a brother, a son, a musician, a writer, a martial artist, a knife maker, a Trekkie, a Simpsons fan and many, many other things. Therapy is definitely a passion and I’m lucky to be able to do it as a profession but it’s only as important of a priority as it has to be for me to be a solid professional, to be truly present for my clients and to make the money I need to provide the life I want to live. It’s important but not the most important thing.
James Hillman was a Jungian psychologist who’s ideas I’ve only more recently become aware. Although I disagree strongly with a lot of what he says, some of his thoughts to fit very well here. In one of his writings, Hillman suggests that therapists have been doing humanity a disservice since their emergence as a discipline. To paraphrase him, we have certain social, cultural, familial, economic and other institutions that serve as the model of and the source of information for “how to do things”. When we do those things according the model we’ve been given and they don’t work, we look inward and ask “what’s wrong with me” rather than questioning the model. He suggests further, that the therapy room, rather than being just a place for introspection, should be a “cell of revolution” where we look externally and challenge those ideas. A place where we say, for example, “maybe I’m not feeling bad just I had a rough childhood but also because most of the food available is unhealthy or because the water I drink isn’t always safe or because I live in a society where the leader of my society has modeled that it’s entirely okay to ‘grab her by the pussy’”. Maybe the problem is external rather than internal. Maybe it’s YOU and not ME. This is where I’ll take Hillman’s lead and suggest we do the same with our attitude towards work. We’ve been deceived. Directly and indirectly we’ve been told that if we have a good job and make lots of money, we’ll be happy and that we’re inherently good. THIS IS NOT ALWAYS TRUE. We’re also led to believe that if you don’t do this, you’re a failure. THIS IS NOT ALWAYS TRUE. We’re also taught to base the entirety of our self-esteem on these ideas. THIS IS DANGEROUS AND WILL LIKELY FAIL. A situation in which you are potentially being exploited will, due to its nature, always disappoint you. It is an absolute set up for failure to base one’s self esteem, emotional wellbeing, and personal identity on this. If your job or your company or your industry exists on some levels to use you as an expendable resource and plans to do so by as much exploitation as it can possibly get away with, WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU CHOSE THAT AS THE THING ON WHICH TO BASE YOUR IDENTITY AND SELF ESTEEM? Don’t do it. It’s a trap.
Be productive, be a good employee. Find meaning in your work. But also remember that doing so in too large a measure means both an increased potential for disaster as well as the imminent risk of becoming a mindless, zombie sheep ripe for on ongoing slaughter. Don’t fall for the propaganda. Focus on parts of yourself that lie outside your job. Develop them and enjoy them. It can be as simple as finger painting or gardening or bike riding or writing blogs that only 7 people read. They don’t have to be grandiose, they only have to matter to you. When you do so, not only have you stopped the manipulation, you’ve also regained some free will. You decide what’s important because you chose it. Not because some unspoken idea says so while it quietly benefits from you doing it. And if your chosen meaning fails, you have the free will and power to change it or chose something else entirely.
Unrelated song: Slothrust – Magnets part I and II. A band that was recommended to me by a former client and oh how grateful to him I am for this! This is a live version and in my opinion is way better than the album version.
Unrelated book – The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey
Yeah. He’s an asshole. But he’s an asshole who makes some good points and many of those points transfer well to the clinical setting.