From work = life to working and resting: A 2nd essay

First Essay: Work = Life

In the past 6 months, I have written frequently about the work/life divide. It should be said at the outset that industrial capitalism inaugurated two startling, world-historical changes. First, it transformed labor into a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Second, it made work into the kind of activity that was to take place in its own value sphere, a sphere outside of and far from one’s dwelling. The corollary is that work has become reconceived–in many but not all quarters–as a kind of drudgery: toiling for the sake of toiling no more. That “no more” comes in the form of leisure or retirement.

This postlapserian desire to be freed from working is indeed quite striking since most of our lives is occupied with working and its offspring: thoughts of working, distractions, idling, and daydreaming during work time. Furthermore, in the past couple years the very concept of the workplace has become something of an enigma.

My first attempt to put the work/life divide to rest went in the direction of an identity thesis. On this construal, work = life and work life = life work. My reasons for doing so are legion and not so easily canvassed in the space of the blog. Suffice it to say, though, that in my philosophy practice I see many conversation partners struggling with problems stemming from our bad sociological and cultural experiments. I see the degradation of work in the eyes of pleasure seekers. I see the untethering of work from higher aims. And I see the coarsening of our mental life in the public sphere and the spilling over of our desires into the private.

For months, I’ve been mulling over my work= life solution, and I can’t seem to make it work anymore. My dissatisfaction follows from the conceptual strain necessary for believing that states of being such as sleep, idleness, and leisure are somehow kinds or types of work. This would have to be true on the literal interpretation of work = life. Yet the phenomenological experience of reverie seems no more congruous with that of working than a dog’s dreaming seems to his experience of hunting. The absurd conclusion is that reverie is a kind of work.

To avoid this conclusion, I want to strike out on a different path, this one much older than the last–strike out and see how it goes. Here is the line of thought that owes much to Spinoza: We work and we rest.

Second Essay: Working and Resting

Working

1. We work for the sake of

i. persisting in our existence

ii. raising our potency and realizing ourselves

iii. aspiring toward higher things such as goodness and beauty (where the act of aspiring is folded into the aim of aspiring)

2. To work well is

i. to be absorbed wholeheartedly in 1.i – 1.iii

ii. to be a thinking-acting being.

3. To work poorly is

i. to diminish 1.i-iii

ii. to dirempt thinking from acting, head from hands.

4. The ‘psychological’ results of working poorly are longing for rest, the desire for diversion, the regret for a life better lived otherwise, and the overall feeling of degradation and exhaustion.

Resting

5. We rest in the sense of

i. sleeping and napping

ii. idleness

iii. reverie and daydreaming

iv. leisurely contemplation

6. To rest well is to raise our potencies.

7. To rest poorly is to be gnawed by restlessness or to be undone by lassitude.

8. The ‘psychological’ consequences of resting overly much is to become a wastrel: i.e., to waste one’s talents, to let one’s fields lie fallow, to be a freerider.

Wisdom & Folly

9. Wisdom involves distinguishing good work from bad, good rest from poor rest and learning when to work and when to rest.

10. One type of folly is restlessness. This involves wanting to work when you should be resting or wanting to rest when you should be working.

Advertisements

A scholar was visiting an old monk…

A scholar was visiting an old monk. The monk filled the scholar’s teacup full, but kept on pouring. The scholar finally exclaimed, “It is full. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” said the monk, “you are overfull with your own opinions. I cannot show you the way of Zen.”

Compiled by Marc de Smedt. The Wisdom of Zen, New York: Abbeville Press, 1994.

A letter written by a Doctors Without Borders friend of mine upon arriving in South Sudan

The following is a letter a friend of mine wrote about her first experiences as an obstetrician and surgeon working  for Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan. Her letter gives the reader a good sense of the state of medical care in some of the harder hit areas of central Africa. D.H. Lawrence is said to have written about new places before he knew anything about them. He was more concerned, he said, with the freshness of his impressions than with their accuracy. In the case of my friend, her thoughts reveal both a freshness and an accuracy. She remains in my thoughts.

Philosophy flourishes in gardens. It can only begin once the hands are free and the belly is full. A good plant rises up to the liquid sky; so does a good life.

Note: Names have been left out, changed, or removed for security reasons.

Dear friends and family,

I have arrived in South Sudan and finally have a free afternoon to sit down and write. I’m doing well and adjusting to life here about as quickly as can be anticipated. It’s been a busy and full couple of weeks, partly due to all of the traveling (it’s quite a lot of work to get this far into the middle of Africa) and partly due to a high work volume—also, everything always takes longer when it’s new, regardless of where one is or what one is doing.

After finally arriving in Uganda, where I spent a few days briefing, I flew by commercial air to South Sudan. The MSF [Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières] field operations are run from here (coordinating supplies, people, paperwork, etc.). Here things are bustling with a sense of their own newness. Here the pride and anticipation felt  among the people after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was instated in July is palpable. After a night in X, I flew with a MAF (a Christian aviation mission that MSF has a contract with) to Y. On the plane were 6 people and boxes and boxes of supplies. We each had to step on a scale with our luggage (they even weighed my yoga mat) so the appropriate flight calculations could be made. We didn’t have enough weight allowance for gas to make the 4 hour flight to Y so had a lay-over in Z to refuel and then another hour or so to our final destination. The landing strip in Y is just as you’d imagine: a red dirt strip with potholes worse than a midwestern highway in the wintertime and lined with grass-thatched huts and teeming with children running out to meet us. A white Land Cruiser (the ubiquitous vehicle in these parts) met us and drove us through town to base.

The town here seems to be quite impoverished. People live in mud huts called tukuls with palm-thatched roofs. As far as I can tell from a few walks about the city, there are groups of a half dozen or so tukuls with a community fire pit and some sort of latrine and city blocks are made up of 6 or so of these communities. Outside of the market (which sells very little), there is essentially no commerce and very little agriculture as the people in this area were ranchers and herdsmen by trade.  In the town, electricity and running water are rare (making the stars shimmer at nighttime!) and plumbing appears to be sparse.

Our compound is not bad at all. There is a large mango tree (sadly, it’s not mango season) in the middle of our tukuls and there are small patches of flowers. Everyone has her own tukul and there is plenty of filtered water and lovely showers. There are 20 or so of us who live here plus the 20 national staff who work as security guards, drivers, cleaners, and cooks. The living area is directly adjacent to the offices, which have moderately reliable and fairly speedy internet access via old school Ethernet. And there is a volleyball court as well. We’ve played every Sunday and I have two skinned knees (cement chips hiding in the sand) to prove it!

The food is pretty bland – nearly every meal gets a healthy dose of a spicy Thai chili garlic sauce that’s imported from Paris. And every meal is the same. Breakfast is surprisingly good – a piece of bread flavored like a pita but fluffy like ciabatta with Kenyan peanut butter (or, for the more adventurous, Happy Cow cheese – that stuff is everywhere! – or Nutella, the other ubiquitous flavor sensation) and of course, Kenyan coffee. Definitely my favorite meal. The beer fridge is the only thing that is reliably full. We mostly drink a Kenyan lager called Tuskar.

Our compound is about a 10 minute walk (or 10 minute drive in the Land Cruisers) from the hospital. The hospital is quite well-equipped with its own clean water supply and generator. There’s a very reasonable selection of medications and all necessary supplies such as suture, IVs, and the like.  There is as little portable ultrasound that is quite nice but no EKG or x-ray and minimal lab tests available. The main hospital is maternity and pediatrics and there is a special section of the hospital reserved to treat malnutrition both for inpatients and outpatients. As you might imagine, the beds are nearly always full, sometimes with 2 patients sharing a bed and make-shift beds on the floor. The maternity staff consists of me, 2 ex-pat midwives (one from the West Coast and the other from Australia), 6 “medical assistants” (who are more like midwives or interns), a handful of “nurses” (who are more like nursing assistants and have never actually gone to nursing school), and plenty of interpreters (mostly Dinka but some Arabic as well). I’m mostly responsible for gynecologic problems and surgical or more complex medical obstetric problems. In addition to more basic cases such as cesarean sections, I’ve had at least one fairly complicated surgical case a day including a ruptured uterus and a ruptured bladder (both from prolonged labor) as well a finger amputation on a little boy (axe accident) and a reattachment of a finger on a little girl (hoe accident). Who knew I’d be running a pediatric hand surgery practice! Oh yes, and I can’t forget to mention the gun shot wound to the back and the innumerable malaria cases. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks.

There are about 16 or 17 expatriate staff working here. Most are in their 30s and 40s. There are 5 doctors – a Family Medicine doctor from Vietnam, a Pediatrician from Japan, an Intensivist from Czech Republic, and an Internist from Kenya. The others are nurses, midwives, logisticians, a pharmacist, and an administrative person. There are 4 Americans here and 4 French, but everyone else is from around the globe. Much of our evening conversation consists of traveling and favorite foods!

So hopefully this gives you some sense of what my life for the next few months will be like. I’ll be sending updates as often as I can. Your emails and letters are always appreciated!

With love,

Further Reading

Adam Hyde, “After South Sudan: Integrating Africa,” Open Democracy (August 22, 2011).

On Stoical exercise

I am writing to you from my inner citadel fortified by my moral purpose. My outer citadel is located on high ground in the Upper East Side.

Irene rains grayly outside.

Yesterday I was restless, but today I am calm. This can easily be explained: I have kept up with my philosophical exercises and have felt my strength return.

The unphilosophical life is the way of torpor and lassitude; the philosophical life is the way of vitality. A philosopher must be a warrior of the soul. He does not hope for reality to become other than it is; he assents to its being; he loves what is and cannot not be; he affirms whatever reality makes its appearance. Moreover, he does not say that nothing can be done; he thinks the right thoughts and acts according to his will.

In both modes, that of affirmation and that of action, he is thoroughly active. In all things, he is wise.

I. Hope is pessimism

Let us follow hoping’s thinking through to the end.

If I hope, then I posit a desire for an object ‘out there’ and onto the future.

If I desire that which is ‘out there,’ then my desire will be frustrated or fulfilled. Sometimes it will be frustrated, sometimes fulfilled.

If it is frequently frustrated, then I am dissatisfied.

If I am dissatisfied, then I harbor regret and wish for something else.

If I wish for something else, then I become less and less active and more and more passive.

As I become more and more passive, I become more and more desperate.

But despair is another name for pessimism.

Thus does hope become its opposite.

II. Stoicism is vitalism

The Stoics do not hope; they affirm.

1. Love of fate is the strenuous exercise of assenting to what is and cannot be otherwise. Love of fate is active; the mind is at work when it says ‘yes.’ It says ‘yes’ to this-ness and ‘yes’ to existence.

2. Love of action is the strenuous exercise of willing something when confronted with the proposition that there’s nothing to be done.

To be a vitalist is to maximize one’s powers in all one thinks and in all one does.

III. Love of Fate: A Dialogue

Philosophy is a practice consisting of a set of exercises. The exercises in III and IV, cast in the form of dialogues, are meant to stage the pull of our desires and the strength of our reason. Our reason must be exercised in the right way at the right time, time and time again.

“O life, O Irene, I wish it were otherwise.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“If only it were…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“If only I had…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“I want things to be…”

“They are so; they cannot be otherwise.”

“Perhaps it will pass–pass by, be over soon, not damage, leave us be.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“Why didn’t I…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“Why didn’t you…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“My mother she…, my father he…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“I only wanted to…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“Life is so unfair.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

IV. Love of Action: A Dialogue

“There is nothing to be done, nothing that can be done.”

“I can do this here and now.”

“Here I sit and wait things out.”

“I can do this here and now.”

“I am dependent on him and her, on time, on world.”

“Of the world: you are no god. Still, you can do much, more than enough: you can do this here and now.”

“There is nothing of good that can be done.”

“You can do this here and now, this that is good.”

“You advise but endless activity. You tell me to move papers about.”

“I counsel: activity that is done for the sake of higher ends. Nothing? Prepare lunch. You believe in life. Go to.”

“And what of leisure?”

“Leisure is a form of activity: to begin with, the activity of contemplation. Amid contemplation, there comes a certain passivity but a passivity of a whole other order of being. In any case, you seek only to excuse yourself. Do not give in to weakness. When you excuse, you diminish your powers. When you act, you enhance them. Only ask, ‘What can I do, here and now?'”

V. Coda

Philosophy is a practice whose principle and purpose is integration: integration of self, of world, of self and world. As such, it consists of a set of exercises suited to our moods.

Last week I ranged about on the savanna. In my mouth there was blood-memory but no gazelle-reality. I ranged restlessly, tense yet listless. What now?

When life is hard, there is the exercise of strength. When life is easy, there is the exercise of joy. Montaigne:

When I dance, I dance.

And where there is life, there also is practice.

The Stoics on Hurricane Irene: There is much you can do but you can’t do everything.

Update: In this Wash Post piece, you can check out my book recommendations on how to think clearly about Hurricane Irene. Also at Wash Post: Here you can read the Aug. 24 transcript of my live chat about philosophical counseling.

Philosophy is an ongoing practice in living well. Here you can read a few of my essays on philosophy as a way of life.

My father is a seasoned worrier. About Hurricane Irene he wrote,

Andrew,

This is a Cat 2-3 hurricane. Worst case has Manhattan under 7ft. of water. How high is your building above sea level? Power could be out for days.

Love, Dad

My mom elaborates on my father’s condition: “Andrew, you know your father. He gets so worked up about things.”

As I see it, the only flaw with my dad’s thinking is that he didn’t make the weather. And that seems to induce in him more than his fair share of anxieties over parking, rule violations, finances, and hurricanes.

The ancient Stoics sought to get us out of this conceptual predicament by training us to think better about reality. Anxiety, they claim, arises from the belief that what we deem valuable will soon perish or what we care most about will never come to pass. The problem is that we’ve sought to treat what’s not within our control as if it were or, worse still, as if it should be. But gods we are not. And this mistaken belief about the nature of reality and the extent of our powers is leading us to unnecessary tension and strife.

To anxiety over escape routes and building heights. In Manhattan. For example.

There’s getting up worked up, and then there’s getting wound down. To achieve the latter, the Stoics suggest we perform regular mental exercises—most notably, that of premeditation. While our first instinct may be to hope that things will work out just the way we’d like, suppose instead we imagine they won’t. Suppose we imagine that an earthquake or a hurricane—Irene, for instance—is well on its way. First, loosen your mind from the thought that things could or should be otherwise; that reality will conform to your desires. Instead, assent wholeheartedly to this unavoidable reality. Second, consider what is within our power: you can take the necessary precautions to minimize the likelihood of harm.

Though at first it seems morbid, this exercise actually relieves us of anxiety by helping us to see not just that the weather is not up to us but also that our thoughts about the world, our awareness of ourselves, and our preparations for the worst all most surely are. Premeditation is thus a Janus-faced exercise in acceptance of reality and strength of will.

There is much you can do but you can’t do everything. The rest is love of fate. To learn the difference between will and fate: this is to become wise.

We want to worry less and to feel more at peace. Stoical philosophers like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca take the process of reasoning to be an ongoing, demanding, yet rewarding exercise whose ultimate aim is to teach us how to replace negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety with a sense of joy that comes with the oceanic movement of good thinking.

Further Reading on Stoicism

Andrew Taggart, “Ataraxia, Allostasis, or Resilience?”

—. “What If Pain Weren’t a Bad Thing?”