This week’s long post is brought to you by my new self-imposed sponsor, Finish-a-Draft Friday, whose motto is “If not now, when?”
Last week, I read a really cool essay by economist John Quiggin called “The Golden Age.” I have never taken so much as a single class on economics, but I am frequently drawn to read about them, probably because they tend to mash-up history, sociology, psychology, science, art, and any of the other things I like, so I can think about them all in new ways.
Quiggin’s essay covered much of that mash-up ground, framed around a discussion of the influence of Keynes’s 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”
Like the rest of Keynes’s work, the essay ceased to be discussed very much during the decades of free-market liberalism that led up to the global financial crisis of 2007 and the ensuing depression, through which most of the developed world is still struggling. And, also like the rest of Keynes’s work, this essay has enjoyed a revival of interest in recent years, promoted most notably by the Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward.
The Skidelskys have revived Keynes’s case for leisure, in the sense of time free to use as we please, as opposed to idleness. As they point out, their argument draws on a tradition that goes back to the ancients. But Keynes offered something quite new: the idea that leisure could be an option for all, not merely for an aristocratic minority.
This and the rest of Quiggin’s essay resonated with me, in part because I’d recently seen this quotation from Buckminster Fuller:
We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living. (as quoted in Elizabeth Barlow’s “The New York Magazine Environmental Teach-in,” 1970, New York Magazine)
I think they were on to something, don’t you? Especially given the technological advances of our digital age! Maybe the real jobs crisis – the real problem behind the unemployment problem – has to do with our (America’s) outdated expectations of 40+ hour work-weeks and utter lack of unconditional guaranteed income and healthcare support. Just a thought.
Adam Ozimek, blogging at Forbes felt Quiggin’s essay merited further speculation, too. But he also suspected “that Americans would generally spend more of their extra time sleeping and watching TV” than “enjoying the slow food movement, tending to their organic gardens, and reading to their children.”
Would destructive idleness really be a threat to a society with more free time and less work? My admittedly small sample size of exactly 1 says no, and here’s why.
Last year, about a week before my birthday, my left eye started seeing fuzzy. I could still see colors perfectly, so I just made all the fonts on my computers and gadgets really big. I assumed it was optic neuritis, which I’d never had before, but which is really common in MS. I was really busy having a birthday and tying up loose ends at work so I could be off for a few days to go get married 500 miles away. I decided to give it a few days to resolve on its own before I called the doctor.
But as soon I woke up on Mother’s Day – five days before our scheduled trip halfway across the country – I knew something was really wrong. My eyes were too sensitive to light, kind of like a migraine but not one, so I was wearing sunglasses indoors and out.
People – and dogs even – had only half a face when I looked at them, like a nightmarish hallucination but not one. I could no longer read anything for more than a few seconds, and even that took a brain-crushing amount of effort. I limped through the last few days of work before taking off the pre-scheduled long wedding weekend.
Then, as soon as we got back home from the trip to DC, instead of going back to work, I got put in the fast lane to see The Taciturn Ophthalmologist. After a silent hour of examination and testing,
He: “The results of your visual field test look like a stroke, but it’s probably not one.”
Me: “Well. That’s probably good news.”
An MRI the next day showed that it wasn’t a particularly sizable lesion, as some of mine have gone, but as with any real estate, it was the location, location, location that mattered. This new lesion was located in exactly the part of the visual pathway (Meyer’s Loop) that caused me to develop left superior homonymous quandrantanopia. In laymen’s terms, if you imagine the visual field of each eye as an analog clock face, with one hand on the 9 and the other on the 12, I lost the piece-of-pie shaped sweep of everything between the 9 and 12. My visual field tests looked like this:
The scariest part was that I couldn’t reliably judge how much I was missing. My perception was that the problem was all left-eye based, but the testing showed that I obviously wasn’t seeing enough with eithereye, so before I spilled blood on the nation’s highways, I had to stop driving.
And because I worked 35 miles from home in an area with no public transport, that meant I had to stop working.
Even with the temporary reprieve from occupational demands, the first days of the experience were filled to bursting. First with traveling and getting married, but not before a few heart-to-hearts along the lines of, “I know we’ve been together for 14 years, but if you wanted to back out because of this shit and find a wife who’s less defective, I’d totally understand. Anyone would understand.”
Lucky for me, KK herself didn’t understand.
So instead of going back to work, I spent days, weeks, months:
- seeing the ophthalmologist
- getting MRI’d to rule out a stroke and rule in an MS flare
- meeting with the neurologist to go over the MRI results
- doing 3 days of IV steroids
- waiting weeks for the steroids to kick in
- seeing the neuro-ophthalmologist
- fighting the insurance company to cover a $23,000 5-day dose of Acthar gel when the steroids didn’t work
- exhausting appeals to the insurance company to cover it
- working with the angels at NORD to get the Acthar for much MUCH less than full price
- self-injecting the Acthar for 5 days
- waiting weeks for the Acthar to work
- waiting for anything to work before my 12 weeks of FMLA protection ran out
- waiting for anything to work before my 6 months of short-term disability ran out
During this relative downtime, I couldn’t take advantage of my primary leisure activities of surfing the internet and reading books/magazines. TV was useless, and I’ve always hated talking on the phone.
So I developed new leisure activities.
My family was kind enough to visit extra much and give KK a break from having to chauffeur me around. Benefit: I had surprise movie-quality heart-to-hearts with my dad and lost some longstanding anxiety about him dying.
Good friends gave me gigs of new music and audiobooks and let me crash their guest rooms for days on end when KK had to travel for work. Benefit: I discovered great new artists and got to spend quality time with my favorite people in the world.
I listened to most of the TED talks. Benefit: I kept my brain from turning into mush and still had things to add to conversations.
I taught myself ways to cook without lopping off digits and ways to clean so our house wasn’t condemned. Benefit: I got over a stupid perfectionist streak that held me back a lot more than a physical disability could.
I walked the dog on our quiet street for miles a day. Benefit: I started getting into the best shape of my life and ended up losing 50 pounds.
I floated in the pool, drinking bourbon, for hours most afternoons. Benefit: My low vitamin D levels finally rose enough for the first time in 3 years that I could cut my prescribed supplements by half.
What I didn’t do is vegetate or rot or rust. I didn’t atrophy into a puddle of directionless goo and regress to an infantile state. I also didn’t have to goad myself into doing things for the sake of doing things.
At times, early on, I had flashes of distress about this new animal-simple existence of moving through the days satisfying basic physical demands and producing nothing, adding nothing, earning nothing.
But as a little more time went by and I started to feel out my new limits, I felt more human. And not just more human than the blinded-animal me, but more human than I had ever been as a white collar cog in the work-eat-sleep-work machine. I was no longer biding my time.
Without having to constantly guard my energy so I’d have enough to surrender at work the next day, I could challenge myself physically when I wanted to. And if I needed to nap in the middle of the afternoon, I could. And if I didn’t need to, I didn’t.
When you have only tiny pockets of free time in the evening or weekends, it’s really easy to gloss over them, because you know your “real” time is work time, and it’ll be coming around again before you know it, certainly before you’re ready. So you never really tap into the potential of your free time. How many weekends are spent washing and drying and ironing your work clothes for the week ahead, or running errands you won’t have time to do during the week because you’ll be stuck at work? Or drinking away an evening to forget your shitty boss and the broken system you’re yoked into?
When I got handed the backhanded gift of swaths of free time, I had no reason not to surrender into it. My sweet wife could ensure I would not end up homeless and hungry, at least not right away. The time would pass no matter what I did or didn’t do. My eyes would get better, or not, no matter what I did or didn’t do, and not even the best doctor in the world could tell me if or when that might happen.
So what would I do at this exotic crossroads of (1) nobody telling me what to do for the first time in my life and (2) having most of the autonomy of a legal adult? I had to listen hard for what still, small voice might come to tell me, and I had to tell all the parent/teacher/coach/boss/church/habit voices to go to hell. Repeatedly.
I started doing what I wanted, without considering whether something was small enough to be feasible or big enough to be important or whether I could get it finished by Sunday night. Eat one more cookie or dye my hair purple or paint the kitchen were equally difficult and therefore equally attainable. Besides, who was going to judge me now, and by what scale?
To borrow from the Zen koan, what do you do before you’re sick? Chop wood, carry water. What do you do after you’re sick? Chop wood, carry water.
I experimented with things I thought I might want, and kept going if it turned out I did and stopped if it turned out I didn’t. Without feeling guilty, I declined to do things I didn’t want to do or to see people I didn’t want to see. Who was going to judge me now, and by what scale?
I lived my new life my new way, and the world didn’t implode. It actually improved.
By the time my vision finally improved and the doctor green lighted me to drive and work again, eight months after this all started, KK and I made the decision that being home agreed with me. A lot of people noticed that it did.
I was less stressed, better rested, and physically stronger than I’d ever been. Our home life was more harmonious when I wasn’t mad at The World and beaten down by soul-draining commutes. I wasn’t just physically home for more hours every day – I was Present when I was at home. I was told I looked younger. I felt younger. I was learning how to play.
It turns out that instead of being destructive, as economists fear, my free time was instructive and constructive. And it was anything but idle. I stopped participating in standard American leisure time activities like compulsive eating, brainless TV watching, and endless shopping – at first because I couldn’t participate, but then because I didn’t need to. I didn’t need to be numbed anymore just to get through the week. I didn’t need to carry around the pain of trying to be somebody else to please another somebody else.
Actually, it was destructive, in one way. The experience has broken me, radicalized me, to the point where I’m damaged goods to the work-eat-sleep-work cog factory overlords. I guess I could choose to put myself back in a position of needing to be numbed and trying to be somebody else, but my price is so much higher now. They can’t afford me.