by Stacey Warde
If getting a living, said Henry David Thoreau, makes you miserable, that’s not living.
Yet, some 160 years after Thoreau’s essay, “Life without principle,” Americans suffer more than ever from “not living,” despite the promise of American dreams about prosperity, getting ahead and building a life of one’s own.
We live in a culture obsessed with work, industry and busyness, making money and getting rich, hurling contempt at idlers and slackers, those who wish to spend their lives, as Thoreau might have, passing their days in the woods, gazing into the depths of a pond, reflecting on the passage of time and eternity, marking the change of seasons, writing poetry, actually living.
Thoreau says there’s more to life than working our fingers to the bone, breaking our backs, and spending our short lives by the sweat of our brows merely to earn a buck. Yet, almost everyone I know does just that, working, working, working, as if that’s all there is to life, as if that’s all that matters in a world that does just fine without our frantic labors for money.
He opens his argument by suggesting that we “consider the way in which we spend our lives.” Will we lower ourselves by seeking merely to get a living, or to go deeper into our being by devoting ourselves to “certain labors which yield more real profit, though but little money”?
He then launches into a lament: The United States is little more than an infinite bustle of business, with no rest in sight, and it is “nothing but work, work, work.”
“I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business,” he adds.
Little has changed since Thoreau’s time when states kept slaves, justified in the name of commerce and industry.
In fact, it could be argued that, while not slaves, millions of Americans suffer from a different kind of servitude, and are worse off today than when Thoreau lobbied for a life whose value is measured by depth and character rather than by the machinations and manipulations of getting rich. Opportunities for workers have decreased, and workers themselves devalued and used as tools and pawns.
Labor, the nitty gritty workforce, has never been held in high esteem in the U.S., with the exception perhaps when working men and women organized and fought for their share of the commonwealth. Slavery takes many forms and the U.S. has mastered the art of it, where men and women are esteemed less for their humanity and more for their worth as slaves in the marketplace.
We still see it in the form of lower wages, reduced benefits, enormous wealth inequalities, lack of opportunities and work that is little more than throwing stones over a wall.
“Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to them in throwing stones over a wall and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages,” Thoreau wrote. “But many are no more worthily employed now.”
Isn’t that still the truth for millions of Americans today? Perhaps even more so as jobs that once provided a decent living continue to vanish and more laborers find themselves working not just one job, but often two or three jobs, and still they are unable to make ends meet.
Wealth inequality will only make things worse, fostering more of the wage slave economy emerging in the U.S. today.
Little in our culture promotes the value of activities that don’t make us rich or financially independent. We don’t get paid to dawdle, meditate, ride a bicycle, take a walk through the woods, pass an entire day at the edge of a pond, bake a pie, or write poetry, for example, but these at least make life rich in a way that money can’t.
If I show an interest in writing poetry while neglecting an opportunity to earn a few bucks digging trenches, Thoreau offers, I will be considered an idler, a no-good lazy bum, which is something my dad used to say about those who seemed to be doing nothing constructive with their time, such as getting ahead, making money—the end-all and be-all of enterprise in the U.S., where utility and industry reign supreme over all other endeavors.
A person’s value is measured only in what he might earn for his labors, or more importantly what he might earn for those who employ him for his services. But if that is all, he is diminished, less than a man and merely a tool for those who stand most to gain from his efforts.
“If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself,” said Thoreau, who argues that the true idler is the one who merely earns money.
“The aim of the laborer,” Thoreau opined, “should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.”
Always, whether we like it or not, as Thoreau suggests, there remains the question of gains obtained beyond the pecuniary. What do we get for our labors beyond the security of a paycheck? Increased purchasing power? A home, or a place to call our own? Two weeks paid vacation? A defense against poverty? What life beyond the money we take home? And if our paychecks offer no security at all, what then?
And, living in the U.S., how can one “spend” a life without money?
My parents taught me that if you worked hard, made the right choices and did as you were told, you could earn a good living, and not only that, but create a lifestyle that suits you, makes you feel as if you’ve done something worthwhile with your life. Thoreau called it, “getting a living,” whereby through “honest, manly toil,” which makes our “bread taste sweet and keeps society sweet,” we perform “the needful but irksome drudgery” of our labors.
Thoreau didn’t begrudge work but kept it in the perspective of what in life was most important to him, to live well and to live independently, with a higher purpose than merely getting a paycheck.
If you worked honestly, gave your best effort, and stayed out of trouble, you’d get ahead in life, my parents would say, and maybe own your own home one day, keep a few toys in the driveway or garage, build a pool in the backyard, and there’d be money in the bank, as if these were the only measure of doing well and living well.
Mostly, that’s true, I guess, when opportunities and options for choosing well are available, but I’ve done all those things and I’m earning less, not more, than the previous generation that believed in getting ahead, even for blue collar workers who, for a time, could count on building something to call their own, and actually got, a living.
These days the prospects for getting a living, for better and more engaging employment, don’t look promising. The American economy isn’t anything close to what it was when I was growing up. The industries that helped build a thriving middle class—aerospace, steel and autos, for example—have all but disappeared. In their place, we’ve created service jobs in big box retail outlets, fast food chains and tourism that pay half to a third of what my parents earned during their productive years.
There’s less focus on getting ahead and more on simply getting by. It’s hard to give ourselves over to the nurture of our hearts and minds, as Thoreau would have advised, when our time is taken up with mere survival.
And now, I’ve reached the age of early retirement, the period of life when Americans allow themselves the rare luxury of “idle” amusements such as traveling across country, going fishing and cobbling together a few hobbies to stay active and interested. But for many, like myself, that option sank into the abyss of greed where, to increase their profits and pad their accounts with more luxuries, the captains of industry shipped American jobs overseas, reducing opportunities for the millions of hardworking Americans who made this country what it is.
Instead, aging boomers like myself face the very real prospect of working until the day we die, earning a pittance for our labors, valued only as a means, much the way slaves were, for the wealthy to increase their obscene wealth, with little or nothing left over to show for our efforts but poverty and oppression.
Back in the day, if you didn’t like what you were doing, you’d just go get another job, find something more suitable to your skillset and experience.
That possibility seems to have vanished. There are no jobs, none with the security and perks of my parents’ generation. Today we work two or three jobs, go to night school to improve ourselves, and…for what? Less and less of the pie that gets swallowed up by the filthy rich, who have put little of what they earn back into the system, hoarding their wealth and mocking or blaming the poor for being lazy and unproductive.
Life for millions of Americans is less an adventure in gains and opportunity and more like indentured servitude, laboring incessantly, never having quite enough, unable to relax and celebrate life and doing what they do “for love of it,” as Thoreau suggested.
The physical exhaustion that accompanies constant labor without reward or respite would be enough to trouble anyone’s mind but tack on the mental and emotional frustration of lack, of working so hard for so little, and you have a recipe for personal and social breakdown and disaster, collapse, total dismay, discouragement, a disheartening sense of failure and doom, and perhaps, eventually, revolt.
Early on, I developed the notion, like Thoreau, that there’s more to life than being a wage slave, that there’s a place for poetry and philosophy, which may not feed the body but more importantly give sustenance to one’s deeper passions, to that thing called “soul.”
It’s much easier to navigate this American life when there are options; without these options, life becomes a prison, where at a minimum, I suppose, we might more passionately consider the ways in which we spend our lives. §
Stacey Warde works as a farmhand and is publisher of The Rogue Voice.com.