I’m Scared, Therefore I Work

A few weeks ago, I got into an argument–offline, not online–about those two horsemen of the apocalypse that are destroying the American nation, rendering it financially insolvent, and turning the American Dream into the American Nightmare. I’m referring, of course, to unions and teacher tenure.

At the heart of these fears is a very interesting generalization about the nature of human motivation in the domain of ‘work.’ To wit, humans only work productively and usefully in an environment of fear, with a Damoclean sword hanging over them: a worker only works and produces value if he or she is made aware, perhaps relentlessly, that immediate termination of his employment is possible at the whim of his employer. Otherwise, the worker will slump into his naturally indolent state, content to cut corners, all the while taking home the hard-earned money of his employers. The unionized worker is protected by the union and the provision of the contract it has signed with management, so he will not work; the tenured teacher knows he or she ‘cannot be fired,’ so naturally, having once obtained tenure, he will kick off his shoes and put them up, content with merely punching time-cards for the rest of his career. To permit the formation of unions, to grant tenure, is to open the gates to an army of sloths, come to nibble away slowly at your productivity schedules and financial bottom-lines.

It is unclear, of course, where those folks who are unionized or tenured, and are yet nevertheless productive and creative, fit into this picture. I presume there are some tenured teachers in this nation’s schools who continue to come to work, teach, assign homeworks and grade them, take their wards on field trips, write recommendation letters, meet parents, and so on. From personal experience I know that many tenured professors continue to teach, advise students, work on intellectually challenging projects and write in a variety of fora. I’m puzzled by what motivates them. Why do they continue to work, when they know they ‘cannot be fired’? (Come to think of it, why am I writing my next book, a business which is driving me a little batty at the moment, when I know won’t be fired if I don’t finish it?)

I wonder if this conception of human motivation is grounded in an archaic conception of ‘work’ itself: to wit, that work is that thing which is unpleasant, forced upon the worker against his will, which he accepts only because of external circumstance, and to bind him to which therefore needs some further form of compulsion. In this picture it seems unimaginable that anyone could ‘choose’ to work, to immerse themselves in a compensation-offering activity that they might find fulfilling. So the aspirant for tenure, one building credentials for that application, is merely shamming. His activities, his productivity, is merely a ruse to enter the building. Once inside, he will immediately disdain precisely that which occupied him so and secured him admission. All that interest in writing and teaching? Merely feigned. There is no need for that sham anymore. Tenure is here.

The panorama of human activity, the various engagements in projects of intellectual and moral worth, their grounding stands revealed: the folks engaged in them are scared of being fired.

Unmasking our Self-Deception about Self-Improvement

In reviewing the incongruous medley of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and two new translations of Dante‘s classic (by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang), Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology. (‘Dante: The Most Vivid VersionNew York Review of Books, 24 October 2013).

In my post on the ‘Sisyphus of sorts’ a couple of days ago, I had sought to provide an unmasking of projects of self-improvement, which all too many of us find ourselves engaged in with little hope–based on their persistent failure–of bringing them to completion. (I hesitate to say ‘similar unmasking’ for fear of being viewed as comparing my attempt to Dante’s!) That post–hopefully!–speaks for itself, but let me, at the risk of sounding excessively pompous, just embellish its claims just a bit.

Repeated, and failed, attempts at self-improvement and self-help display a familiar pattern: the old behavior is discarded in a burst of moralistic enthusiasm, the old lifestyle is deprecated and disdained, and enthusiastic reports are provided on the glories and attractions of the new path chosen. There is relief at a millstone discarded and this palpable emotion is loudly and visibly noted.

Yet, through all this, all too often, the attractions of the older way of being, which indeed, had made it such a persistently adopted mode of behavior, are not paid their due. We fail to recognize that that path had its own role to play in the forms of life we lived; we fail to note the deep habits it formed; no clean surgical excision of it from our selves has been effected. And then, there is the simple matter of the ‘sophomore effect’; the rapid gains visible in the early days of our new-found virtuous life are quickly replaced by the far more mundane, glacial increments of the life that comes about when such novel behavior has become commonplace.

We remain impatient; we miss the easy pleasures of the older way of being, which suddenly, now seems more attractive than ever. So we lapse. But now we encounter again its pathologies. And so we resolve to change again.

The self-deception here is that we do not seek the publicly avowed goal of self-improvement, but merely the movement away from a kind of stagnation, a state of wallowing. When we encounter yet another one, as is inevitable, for life cannot give us endless novelty, we seek out our ‘fall’ again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, quiescent states.

A Sisyphus of Sorts

Here is a familiar enough occurrence: you set off on a journey toward a desired destination, perhaps a state of mind, perhaps a bodily accomplishment, a state of excellence in some manner, shape, form or fashion; you make good time, you travel many miles; you amaze yourself with your speed and the distance covered; you are exhilarated by the heights you now experience; you are no longer bound to the earth, the air is cleaner, more invigorating; you congratulate yourself on your journey thus far; you look back on how far you’ve come, on all those you left behind; the solitude of this seldom traveled road strikes you as splendid; you dare to dream of the now-visible goal.

And then, the upward gradient ceases; the plateau begins; the steps grow more measured, more tedious; the miles covered shrink slowly to yards and inches; the feet drag; the euphoria is gone, replaced by ennui; the formerly clean air is still so, but it has a staleness all its own; the novelty, the thrill, is gone. The goal is still visible, but now obscured by the dust kicked up by your dragging feet; the certainty about its attainment is now replaced by a nagging, persistent, doubt over the wisdom of ever having started this journey. The virtuousness that was once the consequence of declining indulgences now strikes you as a foolishness all of its own; what price this sustained flagellation, this persistent self-denial?

And so, you weaken, you hesitate, you seek diversion, an easier slope. The most facile of those is the path downward, the amble downhill. On it, the pace is greater; the wind presses hard against you, refreshing you once again. Soon enough, you are back in the lowlands. You refuse, guiltily, to look up at the tops again; you declined them once, why remind yourself of that turning away?

But soon, you find the air stifling; the oppression that animated you once returns; all is cumbersome. Whence the lightness, the fleet-footedness you had felt in the highlands? You remember the ascent, the coolness, the euphoria, the shedding of all that was heavy and bore you down. You remember the weightlessness, the sense of endless possibility. You regret the escape, the diversion, the flinching and turning away. You resolve to make the journey again.

And so you set off, rolling your rock back up the hill. Those familiar feelings return; you remember why you thought this was a good idea. You remind yourself the plateau awaits; you await its appearance warily; you stiffen your spine in anticipation. But when it does appear, a familiar feeling, a familiar dismay asserts itself. Soon enough, an old path downward is traversed.

Later, after the disgust of the defeat and the claustrophobia of the lower reaches have sent you back, yet again, on your old ascent, as you head upward, you realize that this is what you really wanted, the exultation of the pulling away, the steepness of the first few steps, the first movements upward. That elusive goal, its shape and location often obscured, only served to motivate the first journey. From then on, what you truly craved was the initial ascension, which had the most acute slopes of all, where you made the most accelerated, tangible progress.  Not for you the long plodding, slow, grind to the end; you always only sought only the path that made you feel the most fleet-footed.

You don’t really mind being a Sisyphus of sorts.