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Work, Love, and Happiness

Sigmund Freud is said to have argued that two things—love and work—are what make us human. The internet would have us believe that this idea is his, but as far as I can tell, it is of unknown origin. It is a meme that travels from one end of the web to the other simply because it resonates with people. Indeed, we spend so much of our time preoccupied with love and work that it makes sense to accept them as our most defining characteristics. We are animals who love and work. That is what we are.  

Whenever I fear that the cynical malaise of our era inhibits any serious discussion of love, I recall the words of George E. Vaillant, M.D., who, after completing Harvard’s seventy year-long study on how to live well, concluded that, “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” While gut instinct can often lead us astray into territory that demands rational course correction, it got this right: “Happiness equals love—full stop.” You’re free to close the book on the subject with a snap that echoes with a satisfying crack through the halls of your psyche.

But what about work? “Work is of two kinds,” argued the estimable philosopher, Bertrand Russell, “first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface; second, telling other people to do so.” Work, in other words, is either the act of moving things and altering stuff or telling other people how to do so. “The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid,” Russell notes, “the second is pleasant and highly paid.” The problem is that work, like love, is a force that provides our life with meaning. It is, as Freud (or whoever) said, one of the defining characteristics of what makes us human, even if it is just moving stuff around on the earth’s surface. Listen to this construction worker describe his job to a sociologist in 1976:

I climb up on those beams every morning I’m working, and I like being way up there looking down at the world. It’s a challenge up there, and the work’s hardly ever routine. You have to pay attention and use your head, too, otherwise you can get into plenty of trouble in the kind of work I do. I’m a good man, and everybody on the job knows it.

This man went so far as to derive his sense of worth from his work. “I’m a good man, and everybody on the job knows it.” He may be lost to history—the sociologist who recorded his words destroyed her records once she published her book—but the buildings he worked on still probably loom large over a metropolis he helped construct. The skyline is more than an outline of a city. No, it is a landscape of meaning.  

It makes you wonder, how much has actually changed in the last forty years? According to journalist Johann Hari, not much:

There is strong evidence that human beings need to feel their lives are meaningful—that they are doing something with purpose that makes a difference. It’s a natural psychological need. But between 2011 and 2012, the polling company Gallup conducted the most detailed study ever carried out of how people feel about the thing we spend most of our waking lives doing—our paid work. They found that 13% of people say they are “engaged” in their work—they find it meaningful and look forward to it. Some 63% say they are “not engaged”, which is defined as “sleepwalking through their workday”. And 24% are “actively disengaged”: they hate it.

So how do you escape? Nurture the connections you have with others. Do something you love regardless of the reward: pick up the guitar again, volunteer to help the less fortunate, build community. Wait for the vicious cycle of work, eat, fuck, work, eat, fuck to pass and put a determined spoke into its goddamned wheels.

Apocalypse Rising

Vice Magazine’s most recent issue on Power and Privilege includes what they call a “brief guide to making a better tomorrow.” It’s a piece that reads more like a jolt of caffeine when maybe what we really need is a hard look into our psyche. Given that this same issue addresses the robots coming for our jobs and the inevitable collapse of capitalism, the guide—a list of five simple…

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“Where Dust and Death are Neighbors”

On December 20, 2017, Gary Numan opened his show in Salt Lake City with the words, “We live in a windswept hell, Where dust and death are neighbors, We hide in a perfect storm, Not even God remembers.” Packed hot and sweaty into the small sold-out venue, his multi-generational fan base crooned and swayed with him, letting a godless apocalypse wet their dry lips. I commemorated the show with…

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A Writing Hiatus

Hey folks! After the last post I wrote, a cocktail of busyness, and some big life lessons, I am taking a break from writing on this blog (and other social media platforms).   I am in the process of internal change and trying to find the right words to describe my feelings feels preemptive. I need a break from language and a moment to step into my skin. I…

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The Botfly

I took a walk down to my beloved Utah Lake recently with every intention of stripping down to my briefs, wading into the water, and swimming out to the buoys. But when I arrived and approached the water’s edge, I hesitated. A thin layer of grime floated on the surface. I couldn’t tell if my repulsion originated in my biological intuition to stay safe or the comfortable sense of…

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Radical Heresy Final Part

Seek the truth and run from those who claim to have found it. André Gide All the religious and historical education I’ve encountered has brought me to the firm conclusion that High Churches are far more like primary schools than they purport. They certainly provide a groundwork for the practice of the initial levels of spirituality, and give structure and organization to folks who share some similar beliefs or…

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Writer’s Block

Each time I sit down to write a post for this blog, I wrestle with finding the “right” words for the page. I find it difficult to decide which voice to write in, and I’m never quite sure how much I should edit because I fret over sounding authentic. I think about the unintended authority that may lay in my words, overly aware that someone might take my voice…

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Ahhh, the Good Ol’ Days

I’m not very old. But I’ve been around long enough to have experienced some shit. At thirty-six, I’ve been an adult for half my life—if you accept our society’s arbitrary age at which we supposedly reach adulthood—and I’ve watched the world around me evolve. By “the world around me,” I mean the place I live, the people in it, and my relationships to both. I describe it as “evolving”…

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Radical Heresy Part 2

I wrote last time about modern heresy in lived experiences outside “the norm” and the methods of torture utilized to enforce conformity in the Middle Ages. Now I’d like to speak on U.S. culture but more specifically on my experience in religious-heavy Utah. I have lived on the fringes of this community for most of my adult life. I am currently planning my escape for places that feel more…

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Belonging in June

June was full of so much fun for me. I spent the first weekend celebrating my sister’s birthday (playing laser tag) and Pride. June 9th was mine and my friend Megan’s birthday, and the day began with news that my niece was born, bringing us another birthday sister <3. We spent the day at a festival of colors and later had a pool party with friends. The third weekend…

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