What is meaningful work?

The most important “I Must” statement on my list is to be “meaningfully employed.”  But what is meaningful employment?

Sometimes it is easier to state what something is not before defining something.  Let’s discuss what meaning is not.

Meaning is not value.  Meaning cannot be sold or traded.  Meaning cannot be gifted.

Way out in West Texas, a Prada store replica sits disconnected from the consumerist culture it’s normally associated with.  It’s a conspicuous reminder that Prada has monetary value, but Prada itself does not mean anything outside of its’ normal context.

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When applied to work, the question becomes, ‘If the meaning of your work lies in the ability to subsequently acquire goods for oneself or others, is the work itself meaningful?.’  To answer this question, I apply the West Texas highway test.  If dropped off on a lonely, deserted highway in West Texas without any ability to trade your work, would the work still feel worthwhile?  If the answer is no, then the work you do is likely valuable but does not contain much personal meaning.

Meaning is also not happiness.

Happiness is comfort.  Happiness is pleasure and passivity.

Meaning is discomfort.  Meaning is an exhausting construction process.  Meaning hurts like the aching pains of a teenager’s knees.

We make meaning.  We feel happy.

Raising kids, or so people say, is the most convincing argument for a split between happiness and meaning.  Parents consistently report feeling less happy after having kids, but report significantly more meaning in their life.  Once again, meaning is an uncomfortable growth process.  Happiness is a passive, blissful state.

Ok, so what is meaningful work?  After reading carefully (see links at the end of the article), I am aware of a consensus.  Meaningful work is both personal and connected to a far-reaching purpose.  It is both intrinsically motivating and in service of the greater good.  I would argue that, strictly when defining meaningful work, it is less important whether what you are doing actually has a net positive impact.  What matters is whether we believe that our work is both personally meaningful and benefits others.  We’ll never know the net positive or negative impact of our actions.  The best we can do is pursue work that we believe to have a positive impact.

Raskolnikov, the complex central character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, has the abstract notion that murdering a pawnbroker who, in his judgment, harms many people would be a crime ultimately benefitting humanity.  Raskolnikov supports his idea analytically but, upon enacting his plan, descends into psychosis.  His ideas become increasingly nihilistic as he dissociates from society.  This is an extreme example, but the point is that abstract calculations of your net impact (payment of taxes contributing towards infrastructure, groundbreaking research advancing a far-off cure, etc.) is not enough for work, or life itself, to hold meaning.  Supporting others financially does usually hold meaning, but the “others” are people you know or interact with.  At the novel’s conclusion, Raskolnikov, through realization of his love for another, knows he is ready to re-enter society.  Dostoyevsky aptly concludes that for Raskolnikov, “Life had stepped into the place of theory and something quite different would work itself out in his mind.”  Raskolnikov finally believed in something and belief, not abstract notions of “the greater good”, is the foundation of meaning.

Ultimately, determination of whether work is meaningful or not is personal.  You must be convinced it satisfies two stringent criteria:  

  1. The work must engage you personally (West Texas highway test)
  2. You must believe in the power of your work to positively impact others

 

LINKS:  If you want to read more about meaningful work.

  1. NY Times Opinion- Millennial Searchers
  2. http://www.workingself.com/work/what-is-meaningful-work
  3. Lab for the Study of Meaning

 

Success

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There is a wide gulf between the literal definition of success and how successful people describe success.  Shown below, the top two definitions per dictionary.com describe success as an identifiable moment conferring discrete benefits.

  1. The favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals
  2. The attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.

Compare this to how two cultural icons define success.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” Maya Angelou

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

Both figures describe success as a process or a state of mind.  What explains the disconnect between the dictionary definition and how individuals understand success?

The issue is the difficulty of judging others’ success.  Outside of close friends and family members, we must resort to outward symbols.  However, these external markers (“wealth, position, honors, or the like”) may or may not have personal meaning to the person in question.  Because of this, we must separate how society will judge us and how we will judge ourselves.

Dictionary.com is defining how others judge your success.  Personally defined success, if it is to have any meaning, must be fundamentally different.

This misconception is the core of early 20s confusion.  Tossed into a maze of opportunities and people, you are overcome with excitement at the simple idea of just being a credible adult.  But then, before intentionally defining it, you begin craving success.  This version of success is shrouded in relativity.  Relative to your friends.  Relative to your co-workers.  Relative to your parents.  Relative to your own expectations.

This realization motivated me to personally define success.  An instructive exercise was to remember a time when I felt successful and tease out what made that period feel successful.  For me, it was as an adolescent.  I was passionate about basketball.  Don’t be fooled, I wasn’t any good.  I just had a strict set of rules I followed each day.  Make between 300 and 500 jump shots.  This seems like a monotonous task, and it oftentimes was.  However, I was focused and the process felt rhythmic.

For all the drudgery, I cherished the few moments a day where I felt like an NBA player in training.  I was engrossed in the work.  My priorities were sparse.  Finish enough chores and homework to keep my parents off my back and shoot the basketball.

As an adult, it is more difficult to pare priorities down to a few essentials.  However, I did find a useful tool.  The guys over at The Minimalists ask people to make a list of priorities you must attend to each day.

My list is simple:

I must write.

I must exercise.

I must study psychology.

I must actively date.

I must declutter my living space.

I must be meaningfully employed.

I must spend time outside.

I must stay connected to my loved ones.

Creating this list jumpstarts the process of examining daily activities and determining whether they support your priorities.  If success is defined daily through purposeful action, then you have a better chance of “liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

 

The Price of Looking to the Sky

We take to the mountains because something is different up there.  The air is crisp, civilization slogs and slaves below you, and you’re theoretically closer to whatever higher power you subscribe to.  However, this feeling proved elusive a few weeks ago.

We awoke early, 2:30 to be exact.  My roommate and I drove to meet a few members of his church group.  We piled into a sturdy SUV and headed for Grey’s Peak, one of the “14ers” so many Coloradans covet.  I gradually awakened as the 1994 Toyota Landcruiser groaned with each elevation increase.

We hit the trail at dawn.  The group fell into a rhythm and eventually broke into smaller clusters.  I began walking with one of the faster group members.  Quickly, I was swept up by his desire to reach the top.  Soon a great distance between us and the larger group formed.

At first glance, it seemed advantageous to be ahead pushing the pace.  We felt good that we were likely to have ample time to summit not just Grey’s Peak, but Torrey’s as well.

At last, we reached the top and took a breather.  The view was expansive and would have been breathtaking in most circumstances.  However, I couldn’t forget the choice we made to break from the group.  A choice that undoubtedly was beneficial in regards to the goal of making both summits before the notorious afternoon storms and murderous lightning bolts emerged.  Still, something felt missing.

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What had I sacrificed in pursuit of this goal?  Why did this feel different that the majesty and freedom I have felt atop much more modest peaks?

I had missed nature’s subtleties.  I hadn’t stopped to feel the cool mountain air on my skin and hadn’t gathered the fresh smell of alpine trees in my nose.  I hadn’t stopped to fear escalating winds or even to ponder how much longer we had to go.

Reaching a goal does not guarantee satisfaction.  Perhaps the feeling of satisfaction is simple sum of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations experienced in pursuit of that goal.  If the only experience is dogged persistence and focus, the achievement is empty.

This phenomenon does not just occur atop mountains.  Recently, a social experiment was staged in a DC metro station.  A world-renowned violinist volunteered to play a free set littered with beautiful, albeit somewhat obscure, compositions in the middle of a busy station.  Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post noted that, “Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100.”¹  The entertainment value of this man’s work was not a question.

Despite this, Bell was shocked to watch as, “1,097 people passed by.  Almost all of them were on the way to work…”.¹  However, a segment of the population noted Bell’s brilliance.  Weingarten noted that, “Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch.  And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”¹  Somewhere along the way these adults became blind to beauty.

After being informed of what they had missed, many pedestrians asked when he would be playing again.  They were informed that this was a one-time experience.

Fortunately, we had a descent to look forward to.  I saw what I had missed.  The flowers, the green hillsides, the blue skies, the radiant sunshine.  Unfortunately, life does not always offer us simple redemption.

“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Perhaps the path matters more than the goal itself.  We must remain aware or our great capacity to become blind to a rich and varied world.

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¹Weingarten, Gene. “Pearls Before Breakfast.” Washington Post 8 April 2007: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html&gt;

Confessions of an Ex-Butcher

It’s unthinkable but true that I learned of love and loss from a summer of chopping meat.

A summer job is a rite of passage for many college-bound seniors.  A cautionary tale of the hellish, trivial existence you would wake to if you didn’t frequent the library.  In actuality, it showed me the disappointment, dashed hopes, and regrets that linger in the bread aisle and behind rows of neatly stacked egg cartons.

I remember the interview, a series of indirect, accusatory questions designed to pinpoint the risk of you stealing gratuitous amounts of inventory or showing up high off your face and obnoxiously late.  There were some who did.

A couple of high school burn-outs traded stories of LSD flashbacks in the break room.  It sounded mystical and horrifying, as if at any moment an innocuous activity like sorting black-skinned avocados against the backdrop of gleaming, silver fish could trigger a dark showing of Fantasia wherein you would be captured in a shiny Disney Castle enshrouded in darkness.

I later engaged in equally vacuous activity though. I purposely lifted heavy boxes in a foolhardy inefficient manner and took exaggerated full turns just to place a box on a shelf, hoping in vain that the extra half-second of exertion would yield some measurable personal change.  I also did push ups on the sly with the lofty goal of making my chest a smidgen broader. It was only fitting that they stuck me behind the stinky, dangerous meat counter.

The $7 an hour rate I was paid seemed lavish, a full dollar above the 2005 minimum wage rate.  Plus, the fringe benefits were myriad.  Filet mignon cooked late at night on the steamer and a steady diet of preposterous stories.

I wore steel-mesh gloves, chopped meat, and smiled at housewives.  At times, I felt vaguely professional and useful.

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I came home smelling of rancid fish and tortured pigs.  Tiny pieces of red meat dotted my black work pants.  One shower rarely felt adequate.  My muscles ached from the push ups I’d sneak in once I was left alone for the night shift.  I was a meathead in the fullest sense of the word.

I hosed down the giant, room height metallic saw, pounds of fat and sinew exploded off the metal monstrosity.  It smelled like a mixture of pencil eraser and decay.  I wore huge, clunky rain boots and the floor looked like what I imagined an Indian village looked like after a monsoon, except the drowning goats and floating rickshaws were little pieces of filthy meat.  Even after a 30-minute coat of scalding hot water, the place never felt clean.

Periodically, I’d talk to my co-workers.  There weren’t many like me, most were serious folks burdened with performance expectations and managerial aspirations.

There were also bitter, burned-out grocery store veterans.

It was unfair that I had it easy and Ray, a grizzled forty something vagabond to my left, had two severed fingers from a life spent slicing carcass and a desecrated subconscious sacrificed somewhere in Vietnam.  Oftentimes, his dark past emerged within tales of benders and violent break-ups.  He hated women, I think mostly because they represented romance and idealism, and referred to them in various demeaning terms.  “Dumb bitch” was his favorite.  “Dumb, fucking bitch!” he would exclaim as his teeth clenched and his red eyebrows furrowed, revealing a frightening caricature of a disillusioned madman.

Ray told horrid stories.  One particularly sordid story, detailed him kicking a naked prostitute out of a “shit-hole Gulfport hotel in the pouring rain, a plethora of drugs left on the table.”  He told me he, “missed that bitch though.”  After a heroin binge, he gathered his belongings and hitchhiked to Texas.  He spoke of bar managers kicking his ass, the swallowing of his own teeth, and bleeding in assorted parking lots.  It was always raining.

Much of it was for shock value, I’m sure, but everything he told seemed real.  More real than anything I’d heard at least.  The pain he suffered and the pain he inflicted on others was real.  I saw how disillusionment snowballed, melted, flooded and drowned this man and those around him.

But Ray had a heart.  He took me under one of his disfigured wings and told me about how mystery shoppers tried to fuck you.  Mystery shoppers were shoppers paid to spy on grocery story workers and report back to their block-headed henchmen.  I never concluded whether they were real or just a base ploy to motivate the peasant rank and file.  He also kept me abreast of rival K-Mart’s generous benefit plan, but cautioned me that it did not outweigh the adversarial managerial climate.

I think he missed, or chose to ignore, the fact that I would be going to college, a place far from blockhead grocery store managers and benefit battles.

My other co-workers were interesting in their own ways.  Francis, our tightwad manager, told me the story of a DWI arrest, spelling the end of his University of Texas days.  He impregnated his girlfriend the same year, creating an insurmountable financial obstacle that he still hadn’t overcome.  He unleashed bitterness on me because I possessed a chance he had lost.  He nitpicked and left embarrassing notes decrying my work ethic and attention to detail.

Francis had cleaned up his life in all of the exterior ways but his soul was black when compared to Ray’s.  Ray was bitter, depressed, and high on drugs but he had moved past hoping others would fail.  Maybe he just had a more advanced form of depression and could not muster the ambition to bring me down with him, but I interpreted it as genuine heartbreak that he wouldn’t wish upon others.

Ray intrigued me because he could be so damn good to me while simultaneously violating every sensibility I’d been taught was decent and proper.  He never wore gloves.  He muttered “stupid, goddamn bitch” as he smiled and handed a splendid housewife a thinly sliced pile of animal harvest. The stunned woman watched in horror and probably bought the meat out of fear, only to throw it out in a fit of hygienic OCD.

The same day that fussbudget Francis lambasted me for an inadequate clean-up job.  Ray valiantly defended me shouting, “Lay off him, he’s just a fucking kid.”  He wanted to protect me from whatever messed up state of mind had befallen him.  I had never met a monster with feelings.

That summer was a whirlwind of change.  I would be off to school in the fall and I vacillated between contentment and apathy towards my high school girlfriend.  All this was trivial, but to an 18-year-old suburban boy it was cataclysmic.

I remember standing behind the counter amidst one of our brief break-ups, and she “happened” to show up (because we all know high school girls have domestic errands to run at 8 pm on a weeknight).  She was wearing an audacious shade of pink.  Her shirt tightly gripped her frame and every urge in my body told me I was still a boy.  This fleeting onslaught of hormones overtook any deep insight I collected that summer.

Years later, I realized I had learned some of the most profound lessons of my life from a deranged butcher.

I learned the different ways grown men deal with heartbreak on a deeper level than any romantic relationship could approach.  I learned that everyone has a story, complex motives, and a heart, however wretched and twisted it becomes.  I learned that heartbreak is far-reaching and sometimes manifests itself in anger, violence, and profanity.  I learned that heartbreak comes from long-held wounds, usually incurred in times of feeble innocence.

Just because Ray’s gnarls and cuts resurfaced themselves as naked prostitutes scampering off in the rain and the unfurling of profanities behind a butcher shop counter didn’t make them any less real.

What It Takes to Leave

“No man can wander without a base.” – Bruce Chatwin

This year I quit my job, changed careers, and moved thousands of miles, seemingly dependent on little more than unfounded idealism and the structural integrity of my Honda Accord.  At first glance, this journey required an adventuresome spirit.  Upon closer examination, this may be less than true.

As a child in San Antonio, there was a creek running behind our house.  We spent hours chasing frogs, birds, and our dog Lucy.  I loved that place.  I remember bringing balloons home from the zoo and setting them free, watching them slowly float into the clear, blue sky for what seemed an eternity.

This was the first time I began to claw at the vast world.  Up to that point, my world consisted of our mountainous driveway, the healthy creek, and our looping cul-de-sac.

A few years later, we moved to Kingwood, where I spent most of my childhood.  I remember miserable weeding sessions amidst the sweltering Gulf Coast heat.  I remember sharing a room with my older brother and listening to Green Day and Bush into the wee hours of the night.  I remember late night walks with the dog, the humidity rising off the pavement as we stared at darkened house after darkened house.  We lamented that our town had nothing.  We had something, but didn’t realize it.  We had a loving, stable home.

Home is where all memories must travel.  It’s the place you journey back to with no worry of airfare or miles on the odometer.  The town may change, you may change, but that place’s magnetic hold on your imagination stands firm.  Indeed, if you hold still long enough, you can see the shadow of that mountainous drive that was really just a steady incline and you can hear the roar of the rushing river that was really just a dried-up creek bed.

“It didn’t matter where I traveled, what I saw, how desperate and lonely I might become out there passing through strange places, strange lands, because I could always return to the safety and sanctuary of home.” Kurt Caswell, In the Sun’s House

Thanks to supportive parents and a stable base, I have traveled freely.  Psychologists refer to this as secure attachment.

The first secure attachment an infant makes is to his or her mother.  Numerous studies have shown that the more secure a child’s attachment to its mother is, the more willing the child is to venture out and take risks.  A famous psychological experiment conducted by Alan Sroufe and Byron Egeland in Minnesota, found that infants “who received the extra dose of early care were, later on, more curious, more self-reliant, calmer, and better able to deal with obstacles.” (Tough,37) In other words, the more secure an environment you grow up in, the more equipped you are to leave it.

Not only does a secure home base make you more likely to venture out, it also gives you a continuing source of relief when times get tough.

At 9 pm on a cold March night, I was awoken by a phone call.  My little brother played “Green, green rocky road” for me, a song he had recently learned on the guitar.  For several months, I had been listening to the same soundtrack and suffering through the disillusionment of winter some 1,000 miles north.  That call, that song saved me.

Growing up, I never imagined feeling this way.  There was my older brother and I trading turns hurling each other against the iron support that held up our basketball hoop.  There was my little brother and I getting into a torrid fist fight.

But something incredible happens when you leave your family.  You realize how much you need and appreciate them, despite any maddening idiosyncrasies you identified along the way.  Within this realization, my brash, naive assumption that I could travel anywhere and build a fortress of self-reliance came crumbling down.  Reliance on family is what gave me the strength to make this journey.

Nowadays, it’s common to hear glorified tales of young adults giving up career and possessions to travel on the cheap.  The costs, in some cases, are low enough for nearly anyone to partake.  Why then does this movement seem overwhelmingly upper middle class?

“Any form of new organization or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganization.  No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former patterns will be succeeded by something better.” – Anthony Storr, Solitude, A Return to Self

This is not to say that all those that lie outside the upper middle class had difficult childhoods or that all upper middle class children had idyllic childhoods.  However, those belonging to lower socioeconomic brackets are more likely to have suffered through childhood adversity.  For these individuals, the answer may lay in childhood and crucial early attachments.  Perhaps those that have been scarred and bruised by turbulent childhoods have to make a larger leap of faith in order to trust a new culture.

The obvious counter argument is that these people have nothing to lose.  They haven’t found prosperity in their current situation, so why not make a change?  As discussed earlier, human instinct does not work this way.

Infants that are able to attach themselves to stuffed animals or other “transitional objects” are said to benefit from secure attachment to their mother.  They are comfortable connecting with other objects due to the confidence they have that their mother will not neglect them.  In the same way, those that lead blissful, peripatetic lives often do so as a result of secure attachments.  They are confident that their support system will be intact and waiting for them upon their triumphant return.

Less fortunate people have little reason to believe that their loved ones and their community will even be recognizable upon their return.

So next time you’re congratulating yourself for being an adventurous, atavistic wanderer just know that this ability likely exists due to the confidence gained from secure attachment to your family.

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With this in mind, instead of touting the perks of traveling and cultural immersion to poverty-stricken youth, perhaps we should first take time to assist them in the building of solid community bases.  Only then will they be free to wander and graze the meadows of varied cultural experience.

¹Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed.  Paul Tough, 2012. Print.

The Ghost of Everett Ruess

As has become tradition, I awoke before 4 AM and headed for the mountains in search of solitude that only a sunrise hike can offer.  I arrived happily caffeinated and ready to plunge into a sea of trails crisscrossing Mt. Greylock, a purple monster that lords over the small Massachusetts burg of Williamstown.

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I was granted the solitude I sought, encountering zero people for the first five or six miles.  Once again, I found myself in love with the challenge and silence of the mountains.  I came across several large animal droppings.  The first was a large pile of pellets indicating a large deer or moose.  Innocuous enough, I thought.  A mile further down the trail, a more human-shaped turd appeared.  From what I’d read, this indicated a big cat or coyote had been here.

For several miles, each rustling twig, each broken branch raised my blood pressure.  I clutched a rock and scanned the dense foliage.  What was supposed to be a loving nature walk, briefly morphed into the mental exercise of destroying a rabid mountain lion.

After a few miles of haunted stillness, I crossed a road.  This overt sign of society reminded me that humans are more menacing than all the cats and bears within the quiet forest.  When I reached the other side of the road, I came across a chilling sign.

A 31-year-old man had gone missing, leaving only a note saying that he wished to disappear “forever into the wilderness and to remain out of contact with humanity.”  The sign proceeded to detail his extensive mental issues and spelled out strategies if you encountered the man.

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My heart hurt, knowing that this man had been afflicted with a familiar heartbreak and love of nature.

“When I go, I leave no trace.”- Everett Ruess

People disappear into the wilderness each year, but none in as dramatic fashion as Everett Ruess.  Everett was an artist and poet, a manic-depressive capable of the highest highs and lowest lows.  He was a male with a gift for the aesthetic and the written word.  Unsurprisingly, he struggled to find a niche within the industrial 1930s.

Out in the wild and free of judgment and oppressing convention, he roamed and wrote a series of beautiful letters and poems.

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He boldly declared love for the lonely canyons and dancing tumbleweed of the Southwest.  He dreamt lucid dreams.  His poems were treacherous and vivid.  Everett was unafraid of the travails of love.  But if you listen closely, you can hear heartbroken murmurs, quiet as a rustle of leaves.

He was in love with the land.  But, like any love, his love required great sacrifice.  His sacrifices ultimately led to irrevocable estrangement with society.  His letters and poems became dark and he intimated that he might never wish to return.  Of course, this was before large-scale depressive medication and hyper-fast telecommunication, so his internal wounds were left to fester.

“As to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon.  I have not tired of the wilderness… I prefer the saddle to the street car, and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult leading into the unknown…”- Everett Ruess

Then, 80 years ago, Everett disappeared without a trace into the vast desert of Utah.  Some conjecture that he was killed by bandits or Indians, some are convinced of suicide, and others suggest he took refuge with a wandering Indian tribe.

“In my mind I conjured up a thousand forgotten cities, left behind by the years; sheer grey mountains; mile upon mile of bare, unfriendly desert; cold lakes unrippled by any breeze, with depths unfathomable; jungles filled with deadly snakes, immense butterflies, brilliant colors, fever, and death.  I swam in the blue seas, and in coral-tinted waters.  Through insufferable heat and incessant flooding downpours I plodded forward….These are the things I saw and the experiences I lived through that night long past.  Now it is night again–the night before I go.” – Everett Ruess- I Go To Make My Destiny, 1932

What’s not debated is that Everett was a disturbed, yet brilliant young man.  A headstrong vagabond, he wished to discover a philosophy that would liberate him from the stifling confines of an industrial society that, in his mind, had lost its soul, its direction.

Everett was lost in that philosophical pursuit.  His inexplicable disappearance leaves many questions.

Did Everett reach the union with nature he aspired to?  Did he find everlasting happiness on the banks of an undying desert stream?  Did he find love in the breathtaking space and emptiness of the desert?

His quest was seemingly logical.  Unable to find perfection in a complex, chaotic urban ecosystem, he sought perfection in an unspoiled land.  Everett was betting that complete contentment was there for the taking.  However, history has repeatedly found us incapable of finding contentment.

Artists, poets, and musicians like Everett are saints destined to die at the altar of an elusive understanding of our volatile human souls.

“Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary;

    That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;

Footsore, thirty, sick with strange diseases;

    Lonely and wet and cold, but that I kept my dream!” – Everett Ruess “Wilderness Song”

What should we really fear?

I wonder what our chief fear should be when we’re all alone and the wind whistles through the trees atop a mountain.  Should our primary fear be savage predators or the seductive beauty of nature we seek?

Are jaw-dropping mountaintop views, the murmur of a rushing creek, and the still of a desert morning temptations too great for some?  Or is temptation being used too pejoratively?  Perhaps it’s a noble pursuit to become one with the land that birthed you.

But how dangerous is this idea?  How demented and disenchanting is this proposition?

The temptation is to give yourself to the trees, the air and the twigs.  The risk is tireless devotion to a cold, beautiful, and distant lover.  A risk that most only recognize in the seedy corners of bars or in the lust of youth.

Perhaps nature, beautiful and eternally young, lurks.  Perhaps nature waits for us to hurdle ourselves into its mysteries.  Perhaps it lies waiting for us to offer ourselves as martyrs against the injustices people have enacted on the massive organic edifice on which we sit.  Perhaps it relishes us prematurely leaving a world of understandable, loving fellow humans only to be crushed by its uncaring jaws.

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Truth is that everyone who runs from this cold world is bound to collide with the conclusion that the sweeping plains of the West or the shady, dense forests of New England are just as cold and heartless as the world they seem to spurn.

Wilderness is stubborn.  Wilderness will breathe and persist long after our feeble attempts to understand or capture it have ceased.

Our only hope is to find joy in our humanity and our shared misunderstanding of all that is greater than us.

You Must Go Through Winter to Understand

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The mornings begin to dip below freezing.  Street traffic slows.  Doors open and close.  The wind is faint, unwilling to wake.

I’m compelled to sit.  Desperation takes hold.  Accompanied only by the dim light of a cheap lamp and scattered photographs of places, people I used to know.

The trees are dull, the sky is low.  I’m so damn numb.  My hands are cracked, my inspiration is sapped.  Damn this winter, damn this town.

Outside, the snow falls in a steady, icy spray.  A bird alights onto my window sill, peers inside and flutters away.

Squeezing, strangling.  Winter grips trees, captures squirrels, and shoos birds away one by one until all that’s left are solitary pigeons.

Hardly awake, the masses slog through a rite of passage.  This frozen, lifeless land speaks no joys, only sorrow fills the cold, lifeless air.

Why would anyone stay?

And then it hits me.

You must go through winter to understand.

White noise falling all around,

Soft flakes of time coming down,

Falling, sticking, staying, leaving,

Clouds moving, weaving,

Meaning only found in their coming and going,

The dirty, frozen pond,

Nothing flowing,

The dirty, frozen city,

No one coming, no one going,

You must go through winter to understand,

Whispers of snow out your window,

Snow flakes piling high,

The drudgery of bundling up,

The aimless trudge,

The slippery sludge,

The stench of an overused coat,

A damp front porch,

The flicker of a dying torch,

You must go through winter to understand,

Clenched jaws,

Frozen eyes burning, twitching,

The numbing sensation of gloves,

The heater’s caress,

The unwillingness to undress,

Memories of sunlight, friends, family,

Good times come and gone,

You must go through winter to understand,

The convergence of days,

Time slipping away,

Stripped, bare trees,

The fear that time itself will freeze,

The quiet,

The restless slumber,

You must go through winter to understand,

The still of dawn,

The winds of change long gone,

An old folk song,

The need for others,

Missing my brothers,

You must go through winter to understand,

The thirst for sun,

The urge to run,

The need for mountains,

The thirst for flowing fountains,

You must go through winter to understand,

The mirage of white sand,

Tunnel visions of spring,

Wondering what that might bring,

You must go through winter to understand,

The slow melt,

The loneliness I once felt,

You must go through winter to understand,

Life first-hand.

In Defense of “Do What You Love”

The Journey Begins

I remember walking along the edge of a suburban ditch surrounded by heat-scorched grass, my mother at my side.  We were discussing my discontent and scattered ambitions.

I threw out the cock-eyed possibility of someday moving to Boston and becoming a writer.  The idea seemed far-fetched, romantic even.  I imagined cobble-stoned streets, warm coffee shops, and perhaps falling in love with something, someone on a chilly night in Fenway Park.

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Sunset in Boston

None of those things happened, and the realities of East Coast living are radically different than I envisioned.  But I’m here.

I’m an hour and a half from that impossibly far-away place.  I’m writing and working, but mostly working.  I’m doing something enjoyable and am a happier person.

All my external circumstances have worsened.  I live in a shabby, overcrowded apartment.  The weather is miserably cold.  Middle school boys frustrate me to the point of exhortation daily.  Yet, I feel confident, buoyant even, about my path.

Alas, there are haters.

Recently, a scathing article received widespread recognition for its oppositional stance towards the “Do What You Love” (DWYL) movement.

Apart from the logical fallacies (hasty generalizations, straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks on Steve Jobs, and false dilemmas), the article’s portrayal of DWYLers as privileged and socially callous has motivated me to present a counter argument based on my own experiences.

Below are seven reasons that DWYL is at worst an innocuous, nebulous statement and at best a transformative message.

1.  Some people are miserable without meaning in their work

“We need to replace our youthful ideas of transcendence with the hard work of committing to the end of a way of life in which our work is not in line with our values.”  Michael Stone

A year ago, I returned from a perspective-altering trip to New Zealand.  Abuzz with energy and a more broad, daring view of the world, I was ready to make things happen.

Beautiful, right?

Beautiful, right?

Except things didn’t happen.  Not good things at least.

This drive to seek the best was born of pure intentions and great naivety.  I thought that moving towards greater financial security would positively transform me.

Instead, it granted me a first-hand account of the soul-sucking corporate world.

I interviewed for a shiny new job and expressed excitement to be part of the “dynamic” energy industry.  I only meant it in a theoretical, strictly tangible sense.  I had no deep-seated interest and passion, just a recognition of its societal stature.

In the office tower across the street, I see pacing lawyers and accountants.  Printer to desk.  Printer to desk.  That was me.  I sat in a windowless office, yearned for lunch.  I walked through a labyrinth of tunnels depriving thousands of professionals of sunlight or noises emanating from anything other than cash registers and computer mice. I ate lunch. I walked, dissatisfied, back to that same lonely spot each day.

I want more than a job.  I want a vocation.  I want to be proud of who I am and be one with my job, interests, and personality.

Success, judged by money, title, or power, is noise distracting from the deep, ignored truth that many are dying slow, painless deaths high up in towers across the US.

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/images/h2/h2_53.183.jpg  Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/images/h2/h2_53.183.jpg Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City

2.  Money for lower-wage workers becomes more obtainable when privileged people opt out of high-paying, stable jobs.

If DWYL is truly an upper-class phenomenon, then those spots would necessarily be filled by a lower wage worker.  Wouldn’t that create more opportunity?

3.  The “DWYL” path requires hard work, sacrifice, and vulnerability

“I hope you live a life you’re proud of.  If you find you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”  F Scott Fitzgerald

I had never seen Hartford, didn’t know a single person that had even visited the place, but I was confident something in that tiny city would change my life.

After 27 hours on the road, I arrived in Hartford.  Even though it was July, the sky was steel-grey and rainy.  A depression settled in upon realization that I had no one to help me move and knew no one in the entire state.

I carried my possessions inside amid the rain and wind.  I felt foreign and isolated.  Eventually, I got my things inside and settled into a bare and uninspiring apartment.  The furniture was sparse and nondescript, much like what I had seen so far of Hartford.

My first day in Hartford was wretched.  The optimism I felt days earlier vanished.  I entered my self-imposed purgatory.  My voluntary exile would force me to come to grips with who I was, who I wanted to be.

Soon thereafter, I experienced the rigor of teaching.  Put it this way:  If a boss demanded that you prepare several hours of presentations each day, warned you of his propensity to get up and make strange sounds and occasionally disrespect you in front of the entire meeting, and then asked you to measure and evaluate his performance each day, you would quit on the spot.  Teachers don’t.

Each day time assails me.  My afternoons dissipate, my hair ripples with a tornado current.  Time knocks me out until I awake staggering back to the teacher’s offices wondering what in God’s name happened.

Now I understand why young teachers are reticent to go out on Friday evenings, their brains cooked from overstimulation.  Loud, inarticulate noises.  The impossible stench of a prepubescent sans Old Spice.  The constant movement.  You have to be so damn vigilant.

I love it though.

I do miss home.  I do miss my family and friends.  Sometimes, I even miss the quiet office environment.

I don’t miss comfort.  I don’t miss being insulated from change.  I don’t miss wasting time at a job I could never grow to like.  I don’t miss the days and nights that drove me to getting in a car and driving thousands of miles to a job paying pennies on the dollar.

4.  For many, DWYL entails helping others and performing services that benefit the same people Miya Tokumitsu claims DWYL undermines

” Civilization is going to end if we continue to drown in the competition for power, fame, sex, and profit.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

I do not desire money or prestige. I just want to say I did something worthwhile.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been inspired by the downtrodden.  I remember my Dad’s annual Company Christmas Party.  Each year they hosted the Harbor Light Choir, composed entirely of former inmates.  The soul and gratefulness they brought to each song brought a tear to my eye every time.  Seeing people in the lowest socioeconomic bracket impart optimism and hope to privileged businessmen left me awestruck.

For me, greatness is selfless dedication to the community.  I’ll be making nearly nothing this year, working investment banker hours.  Why?  Because I will be proud of my accomplishments.

5.  DWYL is not a binary system.  Almost no one has a job consisting entirely of things they love.  

DWYL is based on seeking an enjoyable vocation.

No, it won’t be perfect.  And, yes, there are popular bastardizations of the idea.  Yes, Tim Ferriss, I’m looking at you.

The DWYL movement is not prescribing a single love for all, just as the gay marriage movement does not denigrate heterosexuals marrying partners they deem unsuitable.  As varied as people’s life partners are, a person’s career ambitions can be similarly varied.  The beauty of the free-market is that there’s room for screw-ups, one-night stands (e.g. summer jobs) and even divorces.  And, just as everybody can’t marry a supermodel or genius or doctor, everyone will not find a perfect fit.  Still, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging others to search.

Tokumitsu’s argument leaves no room for nuanced wants and needs.  Some will love jobs that others hate.  Some will do a job they hate to have time for their passion.

Sure, I won’t be a full-time writer next year (or even a part-time one!), but I am confident I’m moving towards my vocation.

6.  Waiting until you’re older and more stable is risky

 “The most dangerous risk of all– The risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” – Randy Komisar, The Monk and the Riddle

People will say, “That’s good you’re doing that while you’re young.”  As if you must cease pursuing enjoyable employment upon reaching a certain age.  Thereafter, you must attend to the serious business of being miserable day in and day out.

What will freedom mean to you the day you reach your arbitrary financial goal?  Will your desire to be free be squashed by the familiarity and routine of oppression?  Will your wings be clipped and your heart disconnected from the legs and arms that move you?

Freedom stares you in the face.  Go be somebody.  Don’t wait for some fat guy in a pin-striped suit to cut you a check.  Screw it.  If you love clowns, work for the circus (besides, clown enthusiasts are creepy and have trouble finding gainful employment anyways), and if you love baseball, coach it.

Each minute you spend daydreaming about what you should or could be doing is a slap in the face of the old man (or woman, but I don’t believe in slapping old women) you’ll eventually become.

7.  America was founded on people searching for a better life.  Why should this stop upon reaching a certain socioeconomic status?

The greatest American triumph; the autonomy to determine your station in life.

Never settle for second-best.  Never settle for a life you don’t want to wake up to.

This is the premise our ancestors arrived with.  That is what emancipation was about.  That is what civil rights were about.  That is what the GI bill was about.

I pray the freedom to pursue a better life never vanishes.

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The Costumes We Wear

I always had the best costume, an expert at disguise.

” I’ve walked these streets
In a spectacle of wealth & poverty
In the diamond market
The scarlet welcome carpet
That they just rolled out for me”

Uh oh, Natalie Merchant pandora. Brings me back to Lubbock, Texas where my Aunt Brenda and I would listen to everything from Tom Petty to yes, Natalie Merchant. “Carnival” transfixed me. Natalie’s tragic walk through the sad carnival resonated with my 8 year old soul. Ashamed that my first spiritual experience occurred at the hands of such a feminine artist, I stuffed the feeling into my back pocket.

That feeling would outgrow every back pocket, every pair of pants. Basketball, accounting, money. Eventually, and sometimes quite rapidly, these things lost the requisite meaning to obscure my true self.

As a child, my favorite animal was the wolf. Grey fur, the trademark howl, and those bright, white fangs were all nice throw-ins. However, I loved the wolf because I empathized with the slander exacted upon its character. Wolves were tortured souls in desperate need of a second chance.

Years later, I remember gazing out the window as our family zoomed south on US 59 to a baseball game or perhaps a museum. My forehead, my eyes, were pulled in by the 15 mile stretch of slums hugging the interstate. The interstate stood rigid, never acquiescing to the ghetto’s call for affection, attention of any kind. Like a distant, busy father the highway had places to go. No time for stopping, embracing.

I wondered what happened in those neighborhoods, what the hungry child thought as he lay awake.

Did he, like me, long for that girl in home room he had been crushing on since elementary? Or did his mind process the poverty and uncertainty surrounding him?

Did he dream about the NBA just as I did? Or was it closer to a burning desire?

Did his stomach growling clinch both the stomach and the heart or did the physical ailment of hunger stomp over any emotions?

His family left starving, forgotten, how did his Father feel? Was his Father so starving and forgotten that he forgot there was an alternative?

Did children, gazing through dirty clothes lines out to the indifferent highway, see the callous, carnival procession?

I believed that, for the wolf and the starving children of Houston, my feelings of sympathy and concern would better the condition of the suffering.

Years passed. I still read grisly newspaper accounts of murders, robberies, with well-hidden remorse. I searched for Wheatley, Sam Houston, Jones High School, all the tough schools, as I scanned the high school box scores each morning. I secretly rooted for them, holding the misinformed idea that my concern, unaccompanied by action, made a difference.

College came and went. Had fun. Did nothing.

I started an accounting career. Still, these feelings, concerns, lay dormant in my back pocket.

It wasn’t until I volunteered with Junior Achievement that I started to shed the costume. These kids, the same kids I worried about, didn’t need my concern. They just needed someone to witness their genius. The creativity, ambition, boldness I witnessed told me exactly what I needed to know.  I needed to rip my feelings, concerns out of my back pocket, shred them into a million pieces.

Just like many adults and, in my case, children, I was once an expert of disguise.

Why I Write

I write as an act of gratitude.

I write to apologize for discovering so late.

I write to go somewhere, I write to go nowhere.  I write because it helps me move.  Helped me move thousands of miles.

I write with my socks on.  I write in a tent with wet, smelly feet.

I write to see thoughts occupy a page.

I write because it provides a perfect blend of control and spontaneity.  Not quite like a railcar off its track but more like a car on an unknown South American mountain pass.

I write because I know my frail condition.

I write in anger, the pen driving irrevocable stitches into an innocent page.

I write because of a feeling had while writing a poem about Allen Iverson in fourth grade.  I write because that poem sucked and I’ve always been the petulant type who seldom enjoys something he’s not good at, except this time I did.

I write for my 10th grade English teacher.  The one who cried when I told her I was transferring.  I write because she’ll never know how much it meant for someone to care in a high school of 4,000 students.

I write because it’s rare for anyone to understand on a deeper level than my physical appearance and spoken words.

I write because it doesn’t require someone’s permission.

I write out of insecurity.  I write because it’s brave.  I write inviting judgment, criticism, or just plain indifference, hoping for the former and usually receiving the latter.

I write to capture a desolate feeling in a Radison Inn somewhere on the West Coast.  I write to describe the lump in my throat the next morning. I write to describe a subpar continental breakfast in a dark hotel dining room.   I write to one day remember being awake, writing at 5 AM in a strange city on the East Coast.

I write to avoid wasting life on cheap weekend thrills.  Vodka, shouting, mediocre dance moves,  all that shit I used to love.

I write for the process.  No longer do I write for results.

Substance is joy.  The essential matter can always be arranged, rearranged.

Experience grows, sensations arrive, words appear.