Ah, the wonder of a lazy Sunday. I revel in how little I accomplished today and simply how much comfort I enjoyed. Hot chocolate. Music. Video games. Blogs. Aside from the occasional disagreement between my five year old and I about our methods of leisure, it was a day quite full of delectable nothing.
But tonight, as I sit on futon and lazily ponder my existence through the lens of Thoreau’s Walden, I realized for how little of my personal survival I was responsible today and began to feel hollow. Yes, I participated in the grocery shopping which allowed me to consume two banana pecan crepes, a bowl of macaroni and cheese, a tuna fish sandwich, and two red pepper tofu burritos. But I couldn’t tell you where these foods came from or how they were created. I don’t know how long ago my tuna was canned or where it was fished. I don’t know what my macaroni was made of and I certainly don’t know how they make tofu, or what it is. I did load and start the washer and dryer, but I didn’t acquire the electricity that ran them nor did I make the soap that cleaned my clothing. I didn’t make my clothing or ever meet the people who did, and in fact, I’ve never been to countries in which they were made. I don’t know of what kind of metal my machines are made, nor how to service them when they break. It was snowing quite a bit outside, so I did manage keep myself warm by staying inside my house. I’m not quite sure who made this house or who last lived in it, nor do know what it’s actually made from. A home inspector once told me there were cinder blocks in the basement and I did install the cabinets in my kitchen. I think they’re made from particle board.
Why should I want to know these things? Millions of people labored for millennia to enable this quality of life. These comforts save me from pain and suffering, from aches, from manual labor. What value could being responsible for such things have if history has marched so steadily away from them since the dawn of humanity?
Maybe value is the wrong concept, or too shallow of one. Placing a value on being directly responsible for my survival presupposes some purpose in life, as if the meaning of life was to survive. But isn’t it, and so much more? For what other purpose would I slave to achieve these comforts in my life? I certainly don’t work for the comforts themselves. They only give me marginal joy; I can only garner so much happiness out of the latest independent film or the newest in grocery store fine dining. For what purpose do I live my life that has the longevity to bring me joy for a lifetime?
For me, it’s not god or anything else so immaterial. I like the material world. It’s all I have and all I’ll ever have, and I mean to make the most of it. But if this is the case, what better joy-giving purpose in life is providing for myself and my children as directly as I can?
Consider two simple alternatives. My daughter and I are hungry and so we step outside and pull an apple from the tree I planted and cared for through ten winters. We take two apples from the lower branches and sit in the shade, sheltered from the summer heat and talk about the latest in kindergarten drama. In this case, I made those apples, I provided the shade. What could give me more purpose than being directly responsible for feeding and sheltering myself and my loved ones?
Now consider the reality of my actual life. My daughter and I are hungry and so we put our jackets, hats and gloves on and search for the car keys. We get into the car, remember to buckle our seatbelts, and drive fifteen minutes through traffic to the nearest grocery store and look for a parking spot in the Sunday rush to redeem coupons. We walk through the lot, cautiously avoiding cars on the way, and find the fruit and vegetables upon entrance, sifting through the soiled apples from Washington. They’ve had a long journey to the east coast in a trailer, but it’s been an important journey, that enabled my daughter and I to enjoy the convenience of “fresh” and ripened fruit, straight from the branch.
Not only is the latter case more complicated for myself and the world, but when this actually happens, I get absolutely no joy out of my journey to the store and back. I could have been enjoying conversation with my daughter instead of focusing on the road, and the symbol of my contribution to her survival would have been reaching for an apple rather than swiping a plastic debit card at the store.
What’s at the core of this problem? Our civilization has prioritized the need for individuality, which requires flexibility in interchange. For individuals to thrive, they need the ability to trade independent of their products. A chicken farmer cannot always trade chicken for what she needs, hence the need for legal tender. And with this legal tender comes a society in which all of humanities needs are provided not by themselves, but by others through money. Money is the interface between everything in our material lives, whether for survival and entertainment. The core of the problem is that we spend our lives interacting with this monetary interface between needs and the things that satisfy them, rather than interacting with and producing these need satisfying goods directly.
Money is not evil; it’s a compromise that enables individual freedom, which I believe is paramount. But the consequence of it is the loss of joy that comes from being directly responsible for ones survival. This is a joy that very few in industrialized nations are even remotely familiar with, and one that I long for.