Archive for June 22nd, 2007

Constitutionally Unsuited to the 21st Century

Sharon June 22nd, 2007

The last two weeks have been madness here - multiple end of school events, a big synagogue charitable event, deadlines for articles, for submission of homeschooling materials, for preparation for a class I’m teaching, various social and community obligations, lots of short notice changes, appointments and schedulced events, and, of course, lots and lots of work in the gardens and on various books.

I’ve found myself living a life rather like the one that a lot of my friends do, in which days are scheduled to the hilt, much time is spent running around or getting ready to run around or doing things. This is rather unlike my own life, and that’s by intent. Generally speaking, we try hard to keep a comparatively slow pace, but things snuck up on us. And I don’t it like it very much. I hate when I’m saying “ok, we’re home from 2:30 to 3:15, and then we’ve got to…”

Perhaps there’s something wrong with me, because I know plenty of people who arrange their lives this way and seem contented. Two of my dearest friends maintain two fairly high powered jobs, their kids have a full schedule of activities, they are active volunteers at the synagogue, the school she teaches at and the university he does. Their kids play sports, have music lessons, all sorts of social activities and they seem not only happy, but comfortable. They are actually remarkably good at this life - most of the trouble comes from the fact that neither parents sleeps more than 5 hours a night.

I on the other hand seem to be ill designed for this. I find myself rushing, and worrying about being late, and that’s when I start snapping at the kids “Simon, come *ON* - get your shoes, we have to leave *RIGHT NOW!*” I don’t feel I write well or think all that clearly when my mind is on something else as well. And it leads me to wonder whether there’s something wrong with me personally, whether, in fact, I am simply constitutionally unsuited to the pace of 21st century life, or whether there’s something wrong with the expectation that we’ll all run around like this.

My kids mostly seem to have inherited this lack of taste for running around. My three year old, Isaiah is a particular homebody, who will happily spend hours picking chard and flowers for the table, and often asks if he can stay home with whoever is not going somewhere. This week pushed all of us - my 20 month old was calling ‘Go home, go home’ by the end of the day yesterday, in which we dropped of educational materials, brought end of school thank you gifts (which Mommy had stayed up making the night before) to eldest child’s school, dropped Mommy off to volunteer at the shul, took the kids out for a picnic with friends, came back, picked me up, rushed home, cleaned the house, baked cookies for playdate, had playdate and sent husband out to make music with his new banjo while I stayed behind to make tofu, do laundry and catch up on email.

Now I really am open to the notion that it might be me. Except that a lot of the people I know, even the ones who do it to themselves quite voluntarily (as opposed to the folks I know who work 2 or 3 jobs just to get by), seem to worry about it. A lot of them talk about looking forward to a slow down period, or needing a rest, or feeling stressed out. And, in fact, it turns out that Americans in general seem to think that they really need to relax pretty badly.

For example, I recently received a magazine in the mail that seemed mostly to be about how people could “pamper” themselves. Advertisements like “You Work Hard. You Deserve to Be Pampered” and “Life is Hard. Embrace Luxury. Pamper Yourself” certainly seemed to emphasize how stressed out we are and how badly we need to be taken care of by someone. Since that person couldn’t possibly be ourselves - that is, we couldn’t meet our own needs for care - someone else has to do it, preferrably at an expensive spa, cruise or resort. Or, if you can’t afford that, several of the ads suggested you could, in fact, come up with an inferior version of self-pampering if you were to purchase perfume, body lotion or the right underwear.

Now the infantilizing description of pampering isn’t an accident, I suspect. Because only if we are stressed, exhausted, miserable and regressed to toddlerhood will we really miss the basic point - the 4K that the pampering vacation requires as a prerequisite requires you to work your heinie off during the year getting stressed and miserable. If, as seems likely for most Americans, you put it on your credit card, well, by the time you pay it off, you may have worked an extra 2 or 3 weeks just to justify that one week of “pampering.” Even if you get a massage every day, and lie in the pool and the sun, is it really worth that much extra labor?

In _Deep Economy_ Bill McKibben does a careful analysis of a great deal of data on personal happiness trying to answer the question of whether the life we live really does make us happy or not, and the answer he comes up with is a general “no.” There’s been a steady drop in the number of people who consider themselves happy since the 1950s. The most fascinating figures in McKibben’s book is the one that documents that money buys happiness up to a point - that until about the 10K (American equivalent) income ceiling. But, for example, when homeless peopel are housed, even in a slum, their estimates of their own satisfaction are about the same as the average college student’s. Which suggests to me not only does money not buy happiness after a certain point, but that our life as a whole isn’t good even for very young, comparatively unfettered people.

The message we get - we’re all supposed to work really, really hard, all the time, except when we regress into total consumption is a crazy one, but, of course, it is useful to the economy at large. Tired, stressed out people don’t have the energy to make dinner - much better to run through the drive through (and don’t think I’m judging anyone here - the only reason we *don’t* do this is that all the drive throughs are so far away we couldn’t possibly justify the trip as faster ;-) ). They don’t have the energy to make things or do things - easier to watch tv. They don’t have the energy even to *think* critically about stuff. In fact, I find that myself after a high stress week - I find that when I’m tired and overwhelmed, it is very hard to care about other people, or the future or much of anything. I just want to be fed and nurtured and entertained and not have to think. Those are the days I want the 20 minute hot showers, the take out meals, mindless television and someone, anyone to “pamper” me.

Now for comparatively lucky and wealthy (by world standards) people like me, you can make trade offs on this one. My family’s household income is in the mid 30s most years. It stays pretty stable because if I make more money, we compensate for that by Eric working less. Some of that is necessity - we don’t have daycare, and the kids are homeschooled, so someone has to be around. And some of it is desire - we don’t want to rush too much. This year is unusual - I’ve got two book contracts and am working *a lot* more than usual - and I’m not always too thrilled about it. Both books should be done by early next year, and after that, if I ever get to write another, I’ve sworn we’ll never live like this again. And by the standards of your average overscheduled family, we’re still pretty low-key.

But what about most people in the world, who need to work long hours in order to stay employed and feed their families? They don’t really have a choice. Or what about parents who don’t have our advantages in education and who feel like they need their kids to have a lot of experiences for them to be able to compete? What about single parents, or those supporting disabled or elderly family members, people without health insurance? That is, what about most people, who might prefer to work less, but also feel unable to give up security in order to have a little breathing room?

One of the things that hel
ps us is having a Sabbath. One day a week, we rest - and it can be a challenge to let go and stop work. But one day a year stands as a real holiday in our week, an oasis of relaxation, peace and pleasure in which we simply do not do the same work we do every day. On our sabbath we don’t consume, we don’t clean, the children don’t have chores, we try not to drive (except for religious and community things), we don’t spend money. We do nap, take walks, spend time with friends, eat good food, read, sing, talk, play. And every week we emerge, restored. It isn’t alway easy - but we consider this a great gift.

Whenever I tell this to people, they immediately reply that they couldn’t do that. And I do understand - many people can’t. But many could - religious Jews, rich or poor, for centuries have insisted - we will not work Saturdays, we will not buy Saturdays, we will act, in our own homes, as though we are free and at peace, even if the world around us mistreats us. There’s something powerful in claiming the right to a day of rest and peace, an act of resistance to the notion that there are those who have the right to compel you to do things - to work, to buy, to do. Of course, there are those who simply can’t find the power to do this alone. But we don’t always have to be alone

The options for those who would take more time away but lack the resources to do so are poor for individuals. But there are alternatives for people acting together. It was the labor movement that managed to get us the 5 day work week, the abolition of child labor, and all other changes. The women’s movement and concerted advocacy got women in the job market and access to almost all work. Over the next decade, we’re likely to experience a vast national retirement - baby boomers are going to be moving out of the workplace and leaving jobs open. By necessity, there are going to be fewer people working full time and more people out of the job market. This is likely to be stressful in many ways, as productivity makes some falls (fewer people doing more work), and there’s more work for fewer bodies. This is also likely to make workers more powerful - and that’s a good thing. It is conceivable that workers might be able to get their hours cut, or reduce the sheer numbers of workers in the workforce while raising salaries back to the days of one worker (although who shouldn’t be decided, as it once was, by gender) being able to actually support a family. This, of course, requires a degree of economic stability that may not happen - but on the off chance it does, we ought to take advantage.

Alternately, of course, if the more likely economic crisis occurs, we may not have much bargaining power at all - people desperate for work don’t. But then, the creation of local economies and local markets will be all that much more urgent, and we’ll only be grateful for any work we’ve done now on those things.

But whether or not we can work less, there are things we can choose to do in order to slow the pace of our lives. One of them is to try and make in our communities the things we now go far afield for. Things like food coops, babysitting coops, community gardens, farmer’s markets, local swap groups, small cottage businesses, homeschool groups, afterschool programs, play groups, summer stuff for kids to do…. Because the less we have to run around to meet our needs for support, friendship, good food, and other basics, the more we can relax. Those of us with the luxury of time can offer to share it with those who don’t have that luxury - “Can I pick up some stuff for you at the farmer’s market?” “Can I give you some basil?” “Could Rose come over and play with Steve and Annie after school one day a week?” “Could we get together once a month and bake together, and freeze extras?

And for all of us, a little work and time on self-sufficiency can reduce our need to work overtime, or maybe allow one family member to work part time or not at all. Reducing our needs, producing more of our own basic wants and needs, these things can be the key to more time, more freedom, less clock punching and more time doing whatever it is that makes you happy.

And perhaps we can change our notion of what constitutes luxury or pampering. There’s no doubt that time for yourself and time for pleasure are an enormous factor in our quality of life. But the person who works 55 hours a week and then comes home to dishes and laundry, 51 weeks a year so they can have someone bring them drinks and rub their backs the other week doesn’t sound lucky to me - it sounds to me like someone who doesn’t get nearly enough pleasure or luxury. Pampering, in the sense of being able to take care of yourself and have a little private joy is something that most of us should work to make an everyday thing - that doesn’t mean expensive luxuries or fancy scented crap - that means being able to do what brings you joy on a regular basis, whether that’s playing with your kids, or listening to the birds sing, reading on the couch or tinkering in your workshop, praying or singing, dancing with friends or playing pickup basketball. Instead of working long hours just to have those things, we should be seeking ways to meet those needs not once a year, but daily, and as part of a more peaceful life.