What can give our work its meaning, apart from the obvious paycheck, is the meaning conferred in the imagination. A woman friend of mine who professes to love cleaning work at some point decided to do it full time as her business. A few years ago, pre-pandemic, she volunteered to clean our nonprofit space, The Other Side, for free, and recently, as we move (slowly) to more indoor programs, she has picked up her task again. For her, the work that is drudgery to 99% of us, a source of grumbling and resentment when it falls on me, for instance, connects her to her joy.
It is essential that now many more of us learn what work is our joy, what work makes us feel, subjectively, connected in spirit with others within that larger consciousness of interconnection. We will only be able to pry ourselves away from the seeming necessity of surrendering our wills to the values and purposes of the dominant neoliberal centralized and top-down reality, no matter how we oppose its militarism, racism, its inherent inhumanity, when the return to local, hands-on, face-to-face, the ordinary and common is known, subjectively and imaginatively, to have real joy in it. This is not a matter of surrendering to a freedom-limiting authority, but to the authority that makes austerity feel like abundance. Only restored imaginations can do this for us, transforming the feeling of deprivation into the sense that in doing our work we do holy work, connecting work. Holiness, then, is not an idea but a completely valid, and subjectively real experience of being part of the whole such that daily work, and commitments, loyalty, repetition, drudgery make a song, or a dance, not a “lifestyle.”
Remember, you who take this on, society will attempt to void this experience of holy work, turn it back to deprivation and resentment. Only a constant activity of creative expression, of improvisational calling upon the creative spirit, can keep the countercultural project on the plane of connection and meaning.
In the NY Times, that for weeks before the invasion had been rattling sabers at Putin (this piece was written pre-invasion), I come across an op-ed piece by travel writer Andrew McCarthy, in praise of travel as “antidote for fear.” I would have thought the prospect of serious peacemaking efforts that communicated a deeper understanding of the conflict (our Ukrainian neighbors, fiercely loyal to their country of origin, were, at least pre-invasion, on Putin’s side in this), some more nuanced, less obviously partisan journalism would do a lot more to relieve the fear the Times itself is fanning! In any case, Mr. McCarthy does a very persuasive job encouraging everyone to hop a flight to wherever and discover other places, other people, and thereby restore his/her feelings of inner peace and goodwill towards humankind.
There’s no downside to this, he seems to say. Above all, he seems not remotely embarrassed at how clearly he presents himself as in the pocket of the airlines’ special interest, drumming up business for them, making no reference whatever to the contribution of air travel to climate warming.
How does he get away with such an obvious insensitivity to to the objective, justifiable fear of the majority of people around the globe of looming mass extinctions? He tells a story of the “emotional healing” he received from a timely trip to Spain during a troubled period in his life 30 years ago. His story, sincere and touchingly told, could make one feel like a heel even bringing up to this man his unconscionable omission.
Most of us know by now the bottom line task for The Times, MSNBC and even NPR is not the social health-inducing one of informing the public, but providing reassurance – even patently ridiculous reassurance like this – that the liberal bourgeois lifestyle is still, and will forever be, non-negotiable. Travel, meeting people in other nations and finding out they’re like me – is this the way to alleviate fear? The objective of travel agencies such as Trafalgar, according to their literature, is to provide maximum leisure for guests to just relax and enjoy. This is the prophylactically protected way the vast majority of Americans will take Mr. McCarthy’s advice, not slipping on a backpack, hitch-hiking through the country, relying on the hospitality of strangers, risking real experiences as I did in my wayward youth.
Although this author seems to want to be addressing specifically the fear of otherness that leads to wall building, his use of the famous FDR quotation suggests the fear he alludes to is existential, “fear itself.” All of it can be washed away if we just can get away from it all!
At the local health food store yesterday two clerks checking me out were discussing the woman who’d just suffered a severe panic attack “right out there in our parking lot!” Worthy indeed to address people’s real fear in this stressed-out time. But will I see in the Times an equally prominent piece done on why Americans should cut down their travel plans to as close to zero as possible in order to bring down CO2 emissions? How, I ask, in great frustration, can the connection between the American way of life and the destruction of the planet ever be severed other than by members of liberal society, those we like to think of as “knowing better,” voluntarily lowering our expectations, discovering other, homelier ways to affirm identity and feel existential “fulfillment” than eating at the banquet table of bourgeois amenities?
Though the American lifestyle remains non-negotiable even now when it’s being lost (but not fast enough), and as it’s increasingly clear the values it upholds are disconnected from the ideals liberals espouse, it seems to me, the change that still can happen is a change of heart. A voluntary austerity taken on as a general strike action everyone can participate in, and based in the restoration of rooted, local and communally-based living, ought to be whole-heartedly supported by those whose ideals already point the way.
One very great obstacle to this happening is precisely the positive difference a solid “sinecure” with good benefits makes in a person’s attitude. Someone like me who missed that train can honestly wonder: are these people who appear lighter of heart than I in these grimmest of times found or been endowed with the great secret of happiness? If so what’s wrong with me? Because of my innate tendency to glumness, to taking fault upon myself, I’m working hard to train myself to see this difference as something caused, as consequence of a class difference I’m not supposed to see. And believe me, for me this is a significant learning. The “glumness” at the bottom of my soul, has been the lifelong Scarlet Letter setting me apart from the ebullient, the strong-minded, and the American Dreamer, causing me to dismiss my qualms and blame myself.
Real ebullience is a gift from within, it warms everyone in its presence. My intelligence tells me this false well-being of the comfortably bourgeois rests not (alone) in the salary and benefits and the global travel but in having smoothly undergone the surgical removal of one’s deeply personal, unequivocal moral conscience. Perhaps I’m talking with an acquaintance who’s returned to icebound Utica from a month in Florida – making no mention of the rising waters, of course. Well, why this omission? Why can people talk about their Florida vacations, their globetrotting, their second homes, with no reference to climate doom? Increasingly, I mistrust white liberal ebullience that’s not the honest, shared glee of counterculture, that does not risk the expression of genuine thought and conviction, that does not reveal she and I to be outsiders to the American bourgeois consensus; in essence, because I place my trust in the holy good of connecting, I trust no buoyancy that doesn’t connect I and thou.
Morally degenerate but still dominant, liberal reality cannot come to grips with climate change, the pollution of the biosphere, war and militarism, degradation of the bonds and customs holding society together. We cannot stop ourselves from supporting the conditions that work toward making the obscenely rich richer and the obscenely poor poorer. The assumption is, if we’re participating in it, it must be okay. In the absence of any higher moral authority, if NPR news or the Times or New Yorker magazine do not imply there’s a grave problem with our liberal middle class assumptions, then there must not be one. We must somehow manage to bear with all the terrible news of the moment, the constant stress – consequences of the oligarchy’s refusals to demilitarize, decarbonize, deplutocratize – and reassure ourselves with travel-as-therapy.
I do apologize for the huge generalization I make in painting all of liberal society with this brush. But, for a moment, it might be useful that we not seek refuge in demurring “there are exceptions,” for, as we the educated well know, unquestioned assumptions end in dogmatism. Moreover, my apology must include the explanatory fact I do not live in an enlightened zone with a non-moribund “left.” However, the leftward thought I contact mainly through reading for the most part reflects a self-righteous tone of rhetoric, in its own way as defensive as the conspiratorial right’s “Stolen election!” and as dispiriting as the centrist liberals. It contains no call to me personally, that is, to the aspiration of my own heart and soul, but only to the “urgent cause” to which I must join myself (or be “part of the problem instead of the solution.” More bullying!) In avoidance of an appeal to emotion the left forsakes the heart as if the heart were not a guiding “organ” in politics. They speak as if the heart’s were not the most persistent – even if largely unconscious – hunger of people in a society where lifestyle has replaced the simple comforts embodied in home, home place, and family, the communally connected, rooted life that is fully, vibrantly, creatively alive.
Making any genuine criticism of lifestyle is so risky – so perilously close to what most people would deem “sour grapes” (as in my mention above of the liberal friend returning to our frozen north from his Florida vacation!) a charge we glum ones are particularly vulnerable to! Yes, maybe I’ve kept up my ambivalent relationship with the white liberal middle class with its abundant amenities simply because I can’t have it! Maybe it’s a law of some kind: you can’t judge a system that is treating you relatively well and, conversely, to judge it is only possible for those who can’t for whatever reason have it but want it, believing it the quintessential (non-negotiable) good?
However, the “sour grapes” story needs deconstructing. What if the dissatisfaction one feels because one can’t reach the grapes is due not simply to base resentment but to a deeper attunement to justice? Might the resentful resignation of the fox’s “Well, they must be sour,” be just one “face” of a legitimate anger? It wasn’t nature that placed those grapes so high, but a human-made constructed reality that “doesn’t have to be that way.”
What if, truth be told, we’re not supposed to cut off the inquiry just at the point of feeling one’s only basis for dissent is a case of sour grapes, of, moreover, a personal problem of morose personality, glum defeatism, sadsackism – so very unamerican? For Aesop’s The Fox & the Grapes is a story that confirms base human nature, a relapse back from noble potential into resentment and demeanment. Hearing it or reading it, we’re supposed to say, thoroughly bullied and drastically lacking social support, ”Yup, that’s the way we are all right.”
I go into this matter because I believe with its built-in defeatism the sour grapes fable explains more than we think about our attitudes toward critiquing the non-negotiable middle class lifestyle. Critiques of the liberal class, no matter how intelligent and perceptive – mainly fall on “endeafened” ears when it comes to the bourgeois class examining itself. The power of the belief is in the fact we’re taught our resentments have no legitimate basis; ergo, they must be “sour grapes.”
Look at it another way. This very resentment is the one those “other white people” have turned into mobbism,Trumpism, book banning, etc. In our“liberal,” democratic society they have never seen examples of honest self-examination and repentance on the part of the dominant (white, liberal) class. Rather, members of that class, having attained it, treat it as inevitably, indisputably the way things are, the way things have to be. With the “liberal elites” wrapped in a sort of smugness, we in effect demand these others either be a long-suffering underclass, perhaps to use their undeserved suffering to prepare themselves Uncle Tom-like for a heavenly reward (highly unlikely!), or to protest in an unreasonable, offensive, threatening way.
No more than the stolen election MAGA-hat wearing Trumpie do I want to be told my resentments are all in my head! Americans conceivably could have been raised so we’d know that if any one of us were experiencing the sense of being a failure, or too glum, too sadsack, too this or too that, that “it doesn’t have to be this way” and therefore we ought to question it. But we weren’t. Those of us raised under the liberal mantra “question authority” weren’t taught that the authority we must question is any that makes us doubt ourselves, our own qualms, our feeling “I’m too this or too that,” including our resentments! We could have been taught legitimate dissent as a serious civics lesson, but the vast majority of us, in the hands of public education, were not.
Thus the liberal class, the believers in liberal education as the means to a just and democratic society, and essentially the framers and chief beneficiaries of that education, are in a serious way responsible for those “other Americans” having learned no way of legitimate dissent. Because every institution in our society teaches that “it does have to be this way,” the ones left out of the bourgeois class, left to be essential-but-discardable workers, cannot see it’s capitalism itself they resent, the liberal class merely gatekeepers.
What we must teach instead is the other way, which is dissent as the holy work of connecting, the work of eros. The other night our Sunday family dinner, a practice Orin and I revived and have kept up for at least the last decade, included 11 people. Nephew Isaiah, 21, who works in our coffeeshop and is irresolute, to say the least about his future plans, mentioned he wants to get bar-tending experience. He was thinking about applying at Applebee’s. Patrick responded, “Why Applebee’s? You can get a job at the Taylor and the Cook (the local farm-to-table restaurant where Patrick is a server). We can train you.”
At our table, a door had been opened for Isaiah, a connection made that would help him work toward his goal, which he seems animated about, and that will keep him in the job world that though not peril-free, is empowered locally. The connections we miss in our bodies are those of closeness, safety and community. We rightly resent the lifestyle “in our face,” that has treated our social need, the need for roots, for corporeal presence, and the bonds of affection as optional.
So what am I saying? Perhaps those of us who’ve learned resentment is an unworthy attribute have something to learn from the resentful? At bottom resentment is a perception of unfairness. Unfairness – not an abstraction or an intellectual idea – is experienced in the body, by everyone. Every bourgeois white liberal has so much to resent! We’ve been taught that the worth of connection/relationships is relative, but it is Absolute; every instance of connecting, as happens daily in our Cafe, is a surge of well-being, of eros. So much we’ve lost in terms of the tactile, the face-to-face, the security of a home place and stable relationships over time, and in exchange we’re handed a screen and virtual connectivity, GPS for our cars and carefree global travel. Ah, gee, thanks! Let’s not look so far down our noses at the Trumpies that we miss the thing we have in common. They’re wrong about who to resent and they love their guns too much. But until we say Fuck you! to the bad deal we’ve made and turn around the purpose of our living to that of recovering the sacred, local connections – each act of connecting being a piece of the holy whole – until we make conscious our resentment of capitalism, we can’t ask others to resent correctly!