What is a Good Life?

What is a Good Life?

I was in the car doing errands yesterday when an interview came on the radio.  David Holbrooke was talking about Diplomat the movie he’s just done about his father, Richard Holbrooke. The interviewer was giving a capsule account of Richard Holbrooke’s life and when he got to his untimely death, he said Holbrooke’s death “cut off an astonishing career.” Not cut off his life, but his career.

When did “career” become synonymous with “life”?

I’ve worked since I was 14, often more than one job at a time, but I never felt that any of those jobs, not even teaching, represented who I was (well, maybe raft guide, that one felt kind of definitive, but more because it made me part of a tribe than because of the job itself). Who I was was never my job — the trick was always trying to find a job that would pay enough to so I could buy more time off — time to read and write, or to hike, or hunt mushrooms, or cook and garden, or in recent years to sew, or knit. What I always wanted was a good life, not a good career.

As I try to articulate what I’ve been building here in Livingston this past decade or so, I’ve been turning back not only to Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, but to Scott and Helen Nearing, the radical leftists who wrote the book on the subject in 1957: The Good Life (and Continuing the Good Life). The Nearings believed each 8 hour workday should be evenly divided between 4 hours of “bread labor” — work to keep the homestead afloat, to keep bread on the table — and 4 hours of creative and mental work. They built their own homesteads (two of them, including a second one started when Scott was in his 80s), wrote and published nearly 50 books and pamphlets, pioneered organic farming in cold climates and passed their knowledge along to Eliot Coleman, who carries the torch today. They got so much done because they were not interested in working for money, but in working for time. They paid cash for everything, built it themselves, didn’t eat meat, grew most of their own food, and spent their lifetimes turning their considerable intelligences to ways to keep body and soul together without participating in the corporate and political systems they could see even then were consolidating power.

The whole of their project fascinates me, but it’s the organization of hours that most interests me these days. One reason that jobs have become such a nightmare is that there truly aren’t enough of them to go around, especially the traditional 40 hour a week job with benefits. Back in the 1930s, when the Nearings were beginning to homestead in Vermont, John Maynard Keynes predicted that the workweek would eventually shrink to 15 hours a week as capital accrued, thereby freeing us all up for creative pursuits. But that hasn’t happened, instead we’ve seen the rise of a rapacious consumer capitalism, one determined to convince us all we don’t have enough, we’ll never have enough, someone else will take what we have, that we’re never good enough or pretty enough or thin enough or enough enough — all to keep selling us goods we don’t need to feed an economy that demands growth at any cost. And corporations have used the shrinking need for workers to flog those still on board even harder — we’re told we should consider ourselves lucky just to have a job at all even if that job means we’re checking emails on our phones before going to sleep and taking meetings with people on the other side of the globe in the middle of the night.

Sometimes I feel bad about stepping off the monkey wheel. I go back to the upscale suburb where I was raised and comparisons arise. I live in a small house, heated largely by one woodstove. I drive a 12 year old car. I make most of my own clothes. My house is just about paid off and I’ve gotten my workweek down to about 30 hours. I’m not rushing around, taking meetings from the driveway or answering emails while I’m there — these days I’m usually hanging out with old people. Old people who have known me my whole life and who, the last time I was home seemed enormously pleased that I’m finally happy, and at ease in my skin, and have a nice partner and a bunch of kids I’m helping to raise and that I’ve finally landed in a solid place.

And I have to say, if I’d had kids, I don’t know that I could have pulled this off. I would have liked to have kids, but I never wanted to do it alone, and the right person didn’t come along until we were both too old (and he never wanted any). While it wasn’t the plan, not having kids has freed me up to be creative in all these other ways. What was in the plan is just what I’ve done — to buy a small, cheap house in an interesting place, to get it paid off as soon as I could, to build a garden and see how much of my own food I can produce and preserve. To buy myself time to write, and to read and to spend my days as the Nearings advised, making and thinking and doing.

Now what we need to do is demand the same for everyone. We could all have jobs if we shared them. Despite the avalanche of articles mocking the Swedes for instituting a 6-hour workday, evidence shows that nations with solid social support networks (universal health care, day care, elder care, free university tuition) and shorter work weeks have consistently higher scores on every happiness index. It’s completely possible to do this, but it will take all of us working together. The 8 hour work week didn’t just come about, people fought for it. We’re going to need to revisit the heroes of the original labor movements, people like the Nearings, if we’re to make any headway at all against the powerful forces of greed that have riven our country into such stark categories of have and have not.

Because the choice should not be between working oneself to death and starving to death. But in a culture which pushes narratives of more more more more more, it can be very difficult to say no thank you, to get off the wheel, to say I have enough.


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