Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Rota Fortunae

What happens when a paycheck is the ideal? Thinking about the persistent mantra that we hear from the government and popular media, the message equates job attainment with personal satisfaction. It's as if once employed, one's worries are assumed to end. Easy to complain about work until it ends. Having witnessed people I have known for decades undergo "voluntary separations" and "reductions in force," at least five cycles since the recession began, this causes me sleeplessness and worry. With my son and wife, I watched the alternative, worst-case (seemingly) scenario in the Belgian film Deux Jours, Une Nuit: "A woman and her husband have to convince her colleagues to give up bonuses so she keeps her job" as the summation pithily puts it. Reflecting on her predicament, I felt very uneasy.

While I pondered this dramatized (but very low-key, realistic, unsentimental) case study, I imagined my coworkers debating this about me, and I wondered if the scenario was reversed how I'd vote, for or against a Christmas bonus. This was, however, moot as when my son asked how much such a bonus was, I had no idea. I realized, reviewing the jobs I've had since I started working at sixteen, that I have never been given a holiday gift by a delegated representative linked to my paycheck. I confess I do not rush into seasonal festivities mandating cheer, so this may be my karmic payback.

People I work with chortle about going to Costco, about bargains at Wal-Mart, about their shopping sprees. But I see far too much stuff around me, and with more housing bulldozed around me any day now, I feel hemmed in by more people, more noise, more traffic, more pressure. But when I read Michael Mott's biography The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, I reflected that Merton, despite his yearning to be a hermit, kept up his book buying, and loved his Dylan records and his brandy. Buddhists claim that one can possess items without having them possess the owner. Tyler Durden's rejoinder in Fight Club comes to mind as a riposte: "do you own your things, or do they own you?"

"The frustration and emptiness so many people feel at this time of year is not an objection to the abundance per se, nor should it be. It is a healthy hunger for nonattachment. This season, don’t rail against the crowds of shoppers on Fifth Avenue or become some sort of anti-gift misanthrope. Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty worldwide. But then, ponder the three practices" in "Abundance Without Attachment," Arthur C. Brooks urges. "Move beyond attachment by collecting experiences, avoid excessive usefulness, and get to the center of your wheel."

Brooks encourages travel that sticks in the memory, and activities worth savoring long after they end, rather than goods accumulated. He defines this by way of a classical guideline, even if this direction may waver in my daily life. I teach at an institution promoting efficiency, attainment of skills, career security, and practicality rather than the ambitions of the liberal arts which I represent, if quixotically.

He explains: "Our daily lives often consist of a dogged pursuit of practicality and usefulness at all costs. This is a sure path toward the attachment we need to avoid. Aristotle makes this point in his Nicomachean Ethics; he shows admiration for learned men because 'they knew things that are remarkable, admirable, difficult, and divine, but useless.'” Not sure I could justify my course outcomes and mandated terminal curricular objectives but it's a sober corrective, if wishful thinking, against the manic push for standardization, regulation, and profit. This spreads far beyond my cohort.

Last night I read William James' 1903 essay "The Ph.D. Octopus"; he feared the takeover of American higher education by the same grinding servility to rank, degrees, and status indulged in by a sclerotic German university system. James opined, from his Harvard tenure, how "the institutionizing on a large scale of any natural combination of need and motive always tends to run into technicality and to develop a tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption." Now, MOOCs are championed, online rather than classroom courses, and credit for work or life experiences, even by the University of California, as four-year degrees no matter what or where must be streamlined. Lowering of standards contends against assurances that the latest is the best to "deliver" the "modality" students want, via the medium that you and I use to connect here.

Aristotle, the wisdom of the East, the temptations of the West even for monks and hermits, the pursuit of the arts not mechanical or tied to slaves or manual labor or the grind but to liberate a free person: this legacy takes in all these influences. We are told every day how we must consume information, products, and services, and how if we try to drop out as a few in Merton's time and ours do, we shirk our economic duty. If you do drop out, like Merton, how much must your community do for you?

The Ethicist (in the same issue as Brooks' article in NY Times) was asked: My 28-year-old son has decided to become a novelist. He recently took a part-time job at a grocery store, working just 15 hours a week to pay his bills, leaving him enough time to write. His low income qualifies him for Medicaid. He could work more if he chose to. Considering this, do taxpayers have a responsibility to provide health coverage for him? Does it matter if this is a short- or long-term strategy? 

Brooks (but after I drafted this, I found NYT letters challenging his affirmation of accumulation galore) puts his liberal education to good use, if not tangible GNP profit beyond his paycheck, as he considers Chaucer's "rota fortunae" (wheel of fortune) and Tibetan "do chag" ("sticky desire") as the contexts to apply to our search for meaning along with materialism. So, despite the fact he's funded as I now learn by a right-wing think-tank for that paycheck, he did generate my own entry, and now I understand some of the unease his encouragement of materialism set off in me. It's fitting, therefore, that I remain troubled rather than comforted by his advice to celebrate affluence, even as I am the beneficiary of it, along with the billions Brooks welcomes to capitalism. He sets up his essay for the conclusion that was my beginning for my blog entry, a wheel again. And so wraps up a year's cycle.
(Illustration: Wheel of Fortune/ Rota Fortunae)

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