A night scene in the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro on July 8, 2014. Rocinha is the largest favela in Brazil. (Lorenzo Moscia/Redux)
Most questions tend to resolve themselves as one passes through life. Who am I? What do I believe in? While they’re questions with which we should be constantly grappling, they at least narrow in focus as time passes. But there is one that I find coming up again, and again, and again.
Why do people do what they do?
It’s a simple question that I find myself asking at work, with friends, and (to a lesser extent) even when interacting with family. I mean it both professionally and personally. What is it, really, that motivates people to wake up in the morning and do something.
Or, in the macro sense. What is it that people are committed to doing with their lives or time?
There are a lot of things that sometimes frustrate me about my life and my job. But one thing that never does is what I’m doing with it. As an adult, I’ve created a worldview in which I have an independent idea of what is “right” and “wrong” and how to assess that which I’ve come up with. And I know that when I go to work every day, things balance out and I’m doing work that I see contributing to positive change. (In my personal case, this means working in an industry that isn’t exploitation based, working to challenge exploitative narratives, etc)
I’d be full of shit if I said that money wasn’t a part of my satisfaction with my life. Since I turned 18, and maybe even before that, I’ve been a crazy planner. I know what it is to have to live on a fixed amount of money and prioritize what I want to do with the resources I have. Part of that stems from my childhood. By the standards I use to judge privilege now, I was extremely privileged. By the standard of those around me when I was a child, I was one of the less fortunate people in my insanely hyper-privileged community. So I understand what it means to make choices and manage resources… after all, that’s what my mother did when she sacrificed a lot to live in a town with good schools to get me where she felt I needed to go.
So yes. I manage my money (I’m lucky enough to HAVE money). And I am in a solid place, paying down my student debt, and am able to live comfortably, travel, and still see a light at the end of the tunnel. But it isn’t what I wake up to do at the beginning of the day, and it isn’t what I hope I accomplished at the day’s end.
I wake up, and go to bed, more or less happy with my life. And I’m able to do that in large part because it’s something I’ve planned out and worked towards for at least half a decade.
Management of Expectations?
People don’t like to be told to manage their expectations. Especially not people in the United States. We’ve grown up in this capitalist culture founded on fucking over the people around us, and we’ve somehow been indoctrinated sufficiently to think that we have an inalienable right to make/have/consume more than our parents ever did, a tradition passed down since the rise of the bourgeoisie. The human costs of this on the people who make what we consume, and deal with our waste, are exponential. I’ve written and read and worked on those issues for year. But that isn’t the point of this piece. It’s one thing to try to ignore those who suffer in order to make your life of privilege easier. It’s another to argue that you don’t have privilege. And you know what is fucking insane? The number of times I hear that an annual income of US$100,000, or US$160,000 is barely enough to survive.
If we have hit that point, perhaps we need to reassess what it means to survive. Yes. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot fucked up in the USA. I make just under US$60,000 per year, and 40% goes to taxes, 30% goes to payment of student loans, 15% goes to travel, and 15% goes to rent/living in Manhattan. And you know what? All that shit is going decently. Whether I’m having a good day or a bad day, I can say pretty easily that the money side of things isn’t holding me back from living my dreams. And maybe that’s because I have dreams that I’m focused on trying to live.
What happened to all of the dreaming?
Not to sound all “where will the children play” but I feel like this comes down to a loss of creativity and “dreaming space” in my generation, and certainly in younger ones. I teach 15-17 year olds, and I can count the number of kids with a crazy impossible dream about saving the world or totally recreating their lives on one hand. There are dozens upon dozens, however, whose life goals are defined solely in terms of profit. Now let’s be real, I am entirely unwilling to criticize kids who grew up with friends in and out of shelters, or in an insane neighborhood where they have to worry about getting jumped every morning, for dreaming of financial stability. But it often feels like every single conversation I have with them is around this idea that “only” 100,000 USD of income could never be enough to be secure.
On the flip side of it, most of my friends from private university, or from Columbia, where I got my masters degree, are significantly unhappy with their incomes as well, even though many of them have broken that “100,000 dollar ceiling,” something I won’t do for a good decade as a teacher (and even that’s rare outside of New York City).
The only thing I can think of is that these people just never had a chance to really experiment with the kind of lives that they wanted. Never had a chance to see other perspectives, really immerse themselves in other cultures, and do the stuff that might not be prepackaged for building a resume, but is overwhelmingly helpful in building our credentials as human beings.
A way forward, for those who are lucky enough to have access to it
There is a real gag-reflex of privilege that comes up when I say this… but ONE way to help to solve this problem would be to let people travel. Really travel. Take a fucking year off, and travel and experience and maybe work from time to time, but go around, experience new things, reflect on those things, and decide who they want to be. Jesus. Do the math and see if you can scrape together extra student loans (loans which you can pay off because you have DONE MATH) and get on a plane! Apply for grants! It doesn’t matter if it’s an exotic year off in southeast Asia, or just time on a cheap Greyhound bus making your way around whatever country you’re from working odd jobs. Expensive, yes, but think of it this way. Assume that cable costs $100 a month. Over 18 years of raising a kid, you save over 21 grand, more than enough for a year off to travel.
Is this within everyone’s reach? Nope. But is it within the reach of all of the people I hear complaining about “just surviving on 6 figures?” Absolutely. Fuck. I do way more than survive on 58K.
One of the most personal scars capitalism has left on our society seems to be its way of encouraging us to judge experiential value in entirely inhuman ways. If something doesn’t help us improve our resumes (and what is a resume but a way of increasing your profitability in the future) we toss it to the side. We write it off as stupid or pretentious to try to consume ethically or reduce our footprints on the planet. People of privilege complain about the economy and problems with Western Capitalism, but the majority of young half-lefty people are only complaining that there isn’t enough SPACE within Western capitalism for them to cash in on the exploitation of others. For those who came of age when I did (I’m in my mid-twenties) it was even more stressful, as we graduated into a recession nobody could predict an immediate end point to.
Somewhere in there, even more than our parents did, who at least had the remnants of the creative outburst that was the 1960’s to look back on, we just lost it. We lost our ability to love, to be spontaneous, to sleep, to take risks just for the sake of taking them. To do something that doesn’t LEAD anywhere, but is worth doing for the sole purpose of experimentation, personal development, or just sheer INTEREST or JOY.
Tomorrow I’m gonna say goodbye to the kids I’ve taught for the last two years, and the kids that I love more than anyone I’ve ever “worked for” before. Hopefully I can communicate one tenth of this.
It’s Sunday afternoon. You’ve had your one weekly chance to decompress, and might be able to think clearly. Plan a trip. Or a day’s adventure. And stop worrying about work.
Dubai | via Pinterest
There are four churches in Antarctica located on the grounds of Chilean and Argentinean polar bases. The images above are of the San Francisco de Asís chapel at Argentina’s Esperanza Base research station in Hope Bay, originally established in 1952.
Via Messy Nessy Chic.