Sunday, July 14, 2013

Doing What You Love - At What Cost?

One of my personal heroes, Joseph Campbell, was famous for his quote "Follow your bliss."  Nowadays people say it as "Love your job and you'll never work a day in your life" or similar pithy lines.  But there was a pithy line from a movie I watched recently that really got me thinking about this.

The movie was In Time (2011, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried).  [Some spoilers ahead]  For those that don't know the movie, the plot revolves around a near-future dystopia where everyone stops aging at 25, but where time has become the currency.  You literally pay for everything with the minutes and hours of your life.  And if you run out of time, you die.  So the very poor struggle to make enough time to last to the next day, while the wealthy may have eons of time.

In one scene in the movie, the wealthy antagonist tries to tell our poor hero that the system only works because of the balance, or rather imbalance, in the system.  "Many must die so that a few may be immortal."  To which our hero responds, "No one should be immortal if even one person has to die."

Now I'm sure most of us would agree that requiring others to die so we can live is immoral.  I mean, I know people who refuse to sign to be an organ donor because they're concerned if they ever end up in the hospital with some dying rich person, the doctors would be inclined to let them die so they could harvest their organs for the rich person.  And I think most people would object to that sort of treatment of a person as a commodity.

But in the movie, when the hero begins his Robin Hood campaign of stealing time and giving it away to the people in the ghetto, there is concern from the wealthy and the police (Time Keepers), that this will destablize the whole economy.  And in fact it does, to some extent.  When the poor no longer need to grind away their lives in factories just to survive, they walk away and the factories shut down.
Well hooray for equality and all, but what happens when those factories don't start up again?

 And that brings me back around to Campbell and his admonition to "Follow your bliss."

I've worked at a lot of jobs over my life.  I've painted houses, laid blacktop, served fast food burgers, and designed cutting-edge paint for aerospace applications, both commercial and military.  I've been a prep cook, a Research and Development chemist, and a Manufacturing Quality Engineer.  I've worked in paints, inks, pesticides, water treatment additives, adhesives and even one of the largest manufactures of alcoholic beverages in the world.  

In all these places, I've met a number of people who liked their jobs, and many who hated them.  Some really loathed their jobs, counting the days until they retired, even if that time was decades away.  A few really loved their work and looked forward to coming to work each day.  But very few could be said to be following their bliss.

Of the few that might really be following their bliss, I'd say all the ones I knew were in creative jobs: designers, product developers, R&D, etc.  I've known some people who really love math and get into accounting.  Others love the law or science or whatever they do.  However, the one thing I've never really found is anyone at the bottom of the heap that loves their job, that is following their bliss.

The guys (and a few women, the chemical industry is, if anything, more sexist in the hourly jobs than it is in the lab jobs) who work in these smelly, often noisy, mostly too hot plants making the paints, inks, coatings and other wonders of modern chemistry that make our modern society possible in so very many ways do it for the paycheck.  These jobs pay well.  That's the beginning and end of it.  Any of the ones I've spoken to could think of at least a few dozen things they'd rather be doing than working in these factories. 

So if everyone followed their bliss, no one would be working in these factories.  And the way of life that allows those fortunate ones to follow their bliss would collapse.

Which makes me think, how different is it, really?  Is "Follow your bliss" so very different from "Many must die so a few can be immortal"?  If many must toil away their lives in miserable jobs so a few can follow their bliss, is it really morally superior?

Personally, I'd love to follow my bliss.  I love to write.  I want to some day make my living from my writing.  Although I do actually have a job now that I like enough that I'm not really in a rush to retire.

But I find myself wondering if this isn't really an elitist ideal.  After all, I like having all the cool stuff I have, that makes my life easier.  I love the laptop I'm writing this on, even if I suspect that the people who made it did not derive nearly as much joy from it's creation as I do from it's use.

After all, we do not live in a world of craftsmen who carefully hand-make everything we use.  Most items we have are mass-produced in factories by faceless, interchangeable workers, who are often treated exactly that way by their employers.  But it makes all these cool things available to many people at prices we can afford.

So is it hypocritical to tell people to follow their dreams, while we want them to keep toiling away to keep our lifestyle going?  Or is it just cruel, an unattainable carrot  dangled to keep them grinding away at their jobs?

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