Hello! If you began following my blog last summer, you may be curious about the absence of new posts over the last year. I had intended to post an entry concerning my adventures in the New Age and Human Potential Movements in the late summer but allowed myself to become preoccupied with my job search, relocated abruptly to start my new job, expended most of my energy weathering the transitions on- and off-site, and subsequently lost inspiration to reengage. In short, I felt uninspired to write due to a seemingly insurmountable obstruction to my creative energy. I found myself ruminating on a number of questions related to the nature of work in general and the nature of my work in particular but was reticent to publish an entry out of a concern that consciously articulating my dissatisfaction would make the period all the more difficult to endure. Despite the challenges that I encountered, this period was brimming with unexpected opportunities, both professional and intellectual. As a result of having withstood and responded to these challenges, I now find myself in a place of far greater, albeit paradoxical, clarity about where I have been and the many as-yet-undefined places I will invariably go.
I began working in higher education administration at an alternative graduate school in the greater Philadelphia area last summer as a way to support myself as I apprenticed with a contemporary African dance company in Philadelphia. I had hoped that returning to the Philadelphia area for this purpose would be a way for me to nurture my creative abilities and could provide a stepping stone to other creative work. While this endeavor did not unfold quite as I anticipated when the company took an unexpected hiatus from winter until spring, the greater challenge was determining how to make sense of myself in a daily work context in which I seldom felt inspired and alive. While I briefly flirted with the idea that my day job need not be a labor of love but only something that supports my true work, I have realized that between preparing for work, commuting, and the in-office work itself, a commitment to that life would require me to sacrifice half of my waking hours– that is, quite literally, half of my (waking) life. While some might find satisfaction in this way of existing, I do not and I have found that denying the truth of my being in this way prompts me to find superficial refuge in various distractions and destructive ways of thinking and behaving. I find it impossible to wallow in inauthenticity and self-negation for half of my waking hours and live with myself easily, let alone engage courageously and creatively in the world. The unmediated connection with self required for creative action is easily lost when one’s life work is solely animated by an employer’s singular agenda as opposed to one’s own. In my experience of this grim scenario, destructive self-distraction became essential to eclipse the dying of the self. Despite the seeming benefits of moving toward a known future with a clearly defined occupation and paths to advancement, the bounded nature of that course grew all too constricting. Despite the personal nature of my reflections on this matter, here again, the personal is political.
Despite my individual concerns, I am certainly well aware that there are countless people in this country and world whose employment takes precisely this form (and significantly harsher forms) due to the pernicious dynamics of global capitalism combined with other systems of sociopolitical domination. For many, securing a 9-5 American office position would be an unthinkable feat. Despite the various conditions of struggle in which people find themselves, if globalizing and universalizing the alienated and destructive middle-class American 9-5 office lifestyle is the end goal of the so-called movement for social justice, I would be prepared to throw in the towel right now. While I am surely cognizant of my significant and incalculable privilege in this area, my experience of this life which would have been unimaginable to ancestors of mine only a couple of generations back informs me that, while better than life under some other prior form of industrial organization, there is yet another culture of work and life beyond these models that has yet to be widely affirmed. I do not believe that the solution to the problem of our collective suffering is to cling to this dying model that demands that we become estranged from ourselves for the sake of productivity and offers us nothing in return but the possibility of a short-term, superficial survival. Beyond the damage rendered to the individual, I feel that the resulting self-loathing and complacency severely impedes the functioning of true democracy and limits our ability to engage in a truly radical re-imagining of society. While the job crisis and corresponding recession that has produced great financial hardship for many is not to be minimized, I ultimately see this social unraveling as an opportunity to consider the ways that these coveted occupations and so-called “life”styles, in fact, negate life. Education scholar Ron Miller writes of the transitions presently occurring in the American educational landscape, noting that the challenges of today’s mechanized system of American schooling may be a temporary, necessary step on the road to new forms of social organization and childrearing conducive to the flourishing of democracy and spiritual depth. In discussing our movement from feudal and totalitarian states to the political organization of the present, he writes:
In some sense, the desire for material prosperity reflects the liberation of the masses from cruel forms of oppression and abject poverty that have characterized human society for many centuries. But now, people are discovering that material wealth alone does not satisfy the yearning for spiritual meaning and that the single-minded pursuit of wealth is dehumanizing, so our cultural evolution is not yet finished
Certainly, various forms of (largely covert) social oppression persist in our society, but I believe that Miller’s statement is intended to comment on the elimination of the social conditions of feudalism and totalitarianism in this western context, for example. We ought to move away from framing our present form of social organization as a zenith from which we can, at last, stand and admire ourselves and, instead, regard it as a mere stage in the development of the good society. By refusing to be confined by present notions of that which is unchangeable, inevitable, or innate, we can begin to imagine new futures. Though I initially wrote a long section concerning the social privilege and complexity inherent in this thought process, I have decided to save that content for a future entry which will explore how we conceptualize the work of social justice.
In an attempt to honor my own unique aspirations and imaginings, I resigned from my position in mid-May to enroll in a full-time master’s program in clinical social work. Now that my foray into full-time higher education administrative work has ended, I feel much more in touch with the truth of my being and value the indeterminacy of my future as it allows space for me to be transformed by my experiences. Despite my gratitude for the genuine kindness and vision of my colleagues, as well as the opportunity to explore a profession typically reserved for a much older professional, I ultimately interpret this unexpected professional opportunity as an invitation to remember who I really am. While it was tempting to consider the ways that continuing in my role and eventually earning a very high salary could theoretically simplify certain aspects of my life, the dilemma is that I would literally have to sacrifice my life to get there and, really, where is “there” anyway? Perhaps I am stating the obvious but I see this as no small price to pay; from my perspective, there is none greater! It strikes me that so many in this society are essentially willing to sacrifice their lives for a 8+-hour-a-day sedentary job performed under fluorescent lighting and in circulated air simply because it may offer a certain level of prestige (or at least the mark of seeming social productivity), a potentially high salary, medical coverage, and vacation time. This may seem a curious statement and I do not wish to minimize the relevance of these resources for countless people in an array of both individual and social circumstances, but I must ask nevertheless why the causal relationship between these debilitatingly unnatural work (and, hence, living) conditions of modern civilization and one’s need for the aforementioned resources is so seldom explored. While I cannot prescribe for anyone else, I ask myself: Why should I compromise my health, undernourish my relationships, and undercut my inner life and creative potential just to turn around and spend all of the wealth I have accrued over the course of my career in a doomed bid to reclaim these things post-retirement? Even if this widely popular approach was actually effective, why not skip the self-imposed drama and direct my energy toward crafting a life from which I need neither escape nor recover?
Though I currently write from Northampton, Massachusetts where I will complete the first summer term of my master’s program, my studies will bring me to the San Francisco Bay Area this academic year where I will complete the first of two full-time clinical internships. There, I hope to test and further explore some of the ideas I have explored or mentioned here on the subjects of activism, creativity, social justice, mystical and New Age religious movements, and other topics in a hands-on, practice setting. In light of the work being done in that region that unites these concerns, the possibilities for learning and engagement will be truly endless. Further, it seemed to me that gaining a broad background in human development in the social context would provide a useful foundation for an array of future endeavors, be they personal, academic, or purely professional. Perhaps I will later kick myself, literally and/or figuratively, for abandoning a career path that could have taken my earnings into the six figures in the next seven to ten years for one that is notoriously underpaid, overworked, and teeming with attrition. While such figures are quoted often in the popular media, I intend to utilize my training in a way that feels deeply meaningful, satisfying, and sustainable to me. As such, I understand that some or all of my work may occur in channels not typically associated with social work in the popular imagination. Despite the stigma often attached to such admissions in social work and related fields, it is increasingly clear to me that, as Frederick Buechner wrote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Further, I can see that I must learn to trust and respect myself enough to move from a question of “what does the work require” (as defined by an employer, academic program, or established field) to “what is MY work” (as a being on the planet in this place and at this time with my particular gifts and liabilities) as it does and does not intersect with the terms of my present employment, commitments as a student, and expectations of my field.
I can see much more clearly now that the personal crisis that I described in the previous entries was only the beginning of a lifelong negotiation between the demands of soul and those of a cacophony of external voices, most notably my own. My personal revelation did not constitute an endpoint but, rather, a point of departure for a journey whose destination is wholly indeterminate– and that is as it should be. I can see that I cannot expect to make a single decision and then find myself conveniently and eternally on solid ground. Would that be truly desirable, anyway? The question that many people in my age range often receive: “What are you going to do with your life?” is instructive. Is life not a process? It is something that is lived and in perpetual flux. This oft-posed question implies that only one thing is done in all of one’s life and that the future is known and knowable. Only a person wholly out-of-touch with their developmental process and the ever-changing present could state clearly and accurately what they will “do with their life” in concrete terms. Why not ask someone what inspires them and enlivens them in living instead? Or, alternately, ask them to describe how they understand their work on the planet at this time. I think that most of us are afraid to pose this question to ourselves, let alone anyone else, because a truthful answer would force people to acknowledge that they are progressively sacrificing the precious minutes, hours, days, and years of their lives at the altar of social acceptance and short-term security. Thinking that living within someone else’s pre-formed mold will save them from the personal risk inherent in answering one’s inner call, many seem not to anticipate the deep psychic pain that results from ignoring it and the destructive behaviors that arise to obscure the unresolved internal contradictions. It seems to me that, here again, the challenge of defining and committing to one’s true work demands a fundamentally creative response– that is, one that arises from the depths of oneself and is unfettered by the demands and misapprehensions of others. While the outside world presents an array of undeniably complex demands and circumstances, it seems to me that freeing ourselves from our own misguided demands is an essential first step.
My friend Elizabeth introduced me to this quotation from the always polemical figure from the anti-psychiatry movement, Thomas Szasz. Regardless of what you might think about psychiatry and the anti-psychiatry movement, the relevance of his insight is undeniable. He writes:
Men are afraid to rock the boat in which they hope to drift safely through life’s currents, when, actually, the boat is stuck on a sandbar. They would be better off to rock the boat and try to shake it loose, or, better still, jump in the water and swim for the shore
I hope you will join me as I jump ship and abandon the proverbial sandbar so that we might swim in the direction of the work (and life) that is truly our own. I also hope that in claiming our deepest work, we help bring into existence a world in which all are empowered to do their deepest work. As I seek to further define what constitutes my deepest work, I hope that you will do the same and share your discoveries as they surface. Despite the challenges inherent in living off the cuff, let us rejoice in the opportunity to be consciously transformed by unforeseeable experiences and bring that authentic and ever-evolving self to the table for the betterment of all.