Anywhere but there

It’s unusual to not value money; it’s definitely counter-cultural, and those of us who aren’t greatly moved by the thought of cold hard cash tend to feel foolish and apologetic, as though not valuing money is a shameful secret.

When I was young I told our elderly neighbour I didn’t really need money. She thought that was hilarious, and years later I was in full agreement, having discovered the limiting realities of not-being-rich.

The need to make money and to make as much as you can while you still can, verges on secular dogma.  It’s the heart of our contemporary faith in the power of money; what Christians used to call ‘Mammon’ before the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement began telling people that God wanted us to be wealthy.

I put up with an awful farce of a job for two years because it would have been irresponsible and unreasonable to turn down relatively well-paid employment.  No matter how bad it got, I had to stick with it because turning down ‘good money’ for no good reason is anathema in this society.

It only occurred to me near the end of my employment that I wasn’t really suited to this religion of money.  I find money quite boring.  I’m not strongly motivated by it, and I resent the fact that those of us who are motivated by ideals rather than paychecks have been so marginalised that we end up thinking we are the problem.

I used to wish I could be more ‘business-minded’ so I could get along better in life, but my experience with business has shown me that it’s not any particular skill-set I’m lacking – there are plenty of people riding the coat-tails of big business without the distinction of any outstanding set of skills.  It’s not something I’m lacking, it’s something I have. What I have is an unwillingness to further compromise myself in order to get along.  I don’t love money enough to sacrifice my integrity for it, doing the kinds of bullshit jobs for which my studies in philosophy, history, politics, and my experience in bioethics ‘qualify’ me.  As the author of the ‘bullshit jobs’ essay, anthropologist David Graeber writes:

“There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

I wonder how many people realise that their jobs should not exist, or that substantial portions of their daily work serve no purpose and are of no real benefit to anyone?  It’s demoralising and demeaning to find oneself in such a position; but why do we endure it?

Part of the answer is cultural: we’ve been conditioned to think that we must have a career, be heading somewhere, be earning as much as we reasonably can for our age and station.  At the same time we can’t even imagine that there might be alternatives – alternatives that won’t see us worn ragged in some vain attempt at total self-sufficiency, or regretting our poverty at an advanced age when it is far too late to do anything about it.

The ‘all or nothing’ mentality is compounded by the cost of basic necessities, in particular the land that one might need in order to eke out an existence.  In Australia the cost of land anywhere in or near the major cities is prohibitive.  House prices have dramatically increased relative to wages, and most people opt for the established convention of seeking a substantial income to service an even more substantial mortgage.

The thought of leaving the major cities is tempting, but though the land may be cheaper, the cost in terms of family and friends makes the price even higher.  And there’s something a little perverse in sacrificing one’s most meaningful relationships to save money; that’s not the kind of victory I’m interested in.

I lost my job a few months ago, and have since been seriously examining and working towards the prospect of never again ending up in another ‘bullshit job’.  Looking back, I can see that my greatest weakness has been the ‘all or nothing’ mentality.  For example, I had previously ruled out the prospect of ‘making a living’ as a freelance writer, because I knew I couldn’t replace my previous income from the kind of writing I do.  In my mind it had to be a comparable income, or it wouldn’t be viable.

This attitude kept me from making even the simplest effort to calculate my family’s cost of living – our annual expenses on a weekly basis.  I had no idea how much money my wife and I needed to make in order to survive.

I’ve since discovered that what we need is a lot less than what I was making in my former job, because of a characteristic that has turned out to be our greatest strength in this new adventure: our lifestyle is not expensive.  We are willing to make sacrifices, but the fact is that we don’t even miss the things that others would regard as ‘sacrifices’.  Our ideals and our interests are heavily weighted toward knowledge and skills that we can acquire and develop on our own.  Our lives would undoubtedly be boring to most of the people trapped in the ‘rat race’ of consumer culture; and that is their handicap and our great advantage.

We poor, marginalised and alienated idealists need to stop apologising for our ‘useless’ degrees, interests and ideals.  We need to drop the false ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy that pushes us towards soul-crushing employment in typically inane ‘bullshit jobs’.  We need to take some solace in the words of Pierre Ryckmans:

The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.

In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t quit that BS job, because it took an experience of such ineptitude and banality to clarify and sharpen my vision of where I want to be, starting with “anywhere but there”.

 

Home-roasted coffee

coffee1

I’ve bean busy…

With due credit to my brother and his wife for getting me started on this project…

I’ve been roasting my own coffee beans for almost a year now.  The procedure is very simple, and achieves the ideal of a high-quality product at far below the market cost.  I can spend 30-45mins roasting beans once every week or two weeks, and enjoy the satisfaction, the freedom, and the existential high of producing my own great-tasting coffee.

Instead of spending as much as $36/kg on fresh, good quality beans, I order green beans online for about $15/kg, including postage.  I roast the beans outdoors in small batches, in a pair of $12-15 popcorn machines.  There are plenty of other ways to roast coffee, and lots of ways to modify the ‘poppers’ for greater control and consistency, but I’m happy thus far with this entry-level approach, and you can read more about it here:

http://www.sweetmarias.com/airpop/airpopmethod.php

In practical terms I’m yet to find a downside to roasting my own coffee at home.  It has become my favourite example of pushing back a little against a purely consumerist lifestyle, and producing something of value for one’s own benefit.

It’s likewise an example of my broader theme of ‘richer on a lower income’, as my family moves slowly toward an improved quality of life on a much reduced income.

How many other things could we produce – not for the sake of self-sufficiency, but for the sake of enjoying higher quality products without having to spend more hours in a meaningless job just to pay for them?  How much autonomy could we regain by having in our own skills and possessions the ability to produce rather than merely consume?  How much more fulfilling is a life spent cultivating the knowledge and sufficiency that past generations took for granted, and which we have all but abandoned?

This tiny step of making (and then drinking) my own coffee is pure inspiration.  It symbolises knowledge, freedom, power, wealth, and principle.  It points the way to a better life in which we can break the ruling conventions of 9-5 jobs and supermarket trolleys.

This isn’t about self-sufficiency in the most literal and demanding sense, nor are we about to dig a bomb-shelter, stockpile weapons, or form a fringe religious cult (coffee-cult, maybe).  It fundamentally is not about making life more difficult, onerous, or weird.  Rather, it’s about the kinds of improvements that would be common-sense if so many of us weren’t alienated and estranged by the demands of mainstream employment, and a culture increasingly dependent on a false dichotomy of career and consumption.

 

 

The superior man needs an income

The subtitle of this blog indicates the ambivalence of the virtue traditions towards utility. Whether Chinese or Western, philosophy has never sold itself as the means to everyday ends such as wealth, power, prestige, or any of the untold lusts and desires that drive human behaviour.

Yet we are so used to thinking and speaking in terms of utility that we can hardly communicate the excellence of this path. Everyday terms, utilitarian terms of ‘skill’, ‘values’, ‘proficiencies’, and ‘outcomes’ seem out of place when discussing virtue, wisdom, reason, and the countless fields of inquiry to which philosophers have turned their attention.

Nonetheless this is my challenge: I have been asked for the sake of my future employment prospects to elucidate my abilities; and while it may be tempting to simply write ‘analytic skills and problem solving’, I feel it doesn’t really do justice to what is on the one hand my most obvious ‘proficiency’, and on the other hand the greatest obstacle for my future employment. Anyway, here goes:

Whenever a situation, problem, usual or unusual circumstance comes to my attention I can’t help but try to understand it. By understanding I mean separating the essential from the non-essential, analysing all constituents or components, observing their many interactions and relationships, and determining their purpose or significance as individual parts, a greater whole, and one thing among many.

Even while arriving at this understanding, inspiration comes into play, both drawing upon and contributing to understanding. How are a pencil and a knife similar? You can stab someone with a pencil, you can carve your name with a knife, and let’s not forget that you can use the knife to sharpen the pencil. Such partial analogies as these require understanding, and they also further understanding. But they do not arise from any process within our control. Inspiration, creativity, are free. The best we can do is prepare the ground – ourselves – for the work they will bring.
As understanding and creativity progress they draw in questions: what is this like? How does it work? What is it for? What is its purpose? How is it being used? Answering these questions necessarily brings thoughts of improvement, enhancement, efficiency and waste; after all, if we understand how something works, we can also see why it isn’t working as well as it might.

Understanding and creativity can also uncover alternative ways of achieving the same goals, and alternative goals to which these existing methods may be applied. There might be nothing wrong with your method, but a different method could achieve the same goal more easily. Or your method might be so good that we could apply its lessons to other areas of life.

But ultimately understanding is its own reward and these other things are just potentially useful by-products. Philosophers seek to know, and at the same time they ruthlessly scrutinise the integrity of their own knowledge. That is why we have a convergence from the West: “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”, and from the East: “The Master said, ‘Yû, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;– this is knowledge.”

That is why I characterise this deep desire to understand as both a proficiency of sorts and a hindrance. It is clearly the basis of my skills yet it leaves me with little regard for the utility of those skills. I find I’m driven to understand with an intensity that dies the minute I turn my mind primarily to profit. Only in writing, thus far, have I found a balance of understanding and creativity for which people have been willing to pay. If other avenues exist I hope to find them, or else make writing a career to sustain myself and my family.