What do you owe yourself and what do you owe the world around you?
I ask because I'm reading Thomas Friedman's new book The World Is Flat, which details how, in this brave new interconnected world, you had better continually upgrade who you are and what you can do or else you will be left in the competitive dust of those around you who are not necessarily climbing the corporate ladder, but just hanging onto a rung by any means possible.
I also ask because recently I read a book called Citizen Nader, written in 1972, about social crusader Ralph Nader, a man who, even thirty-five years ago, was recognizing certain tendencies in American society that he deemed trivial and wasteful -- namely, watching t.v., chilling out, playing mah-jong, having fun. In a world and a society at the mercy of major corporations and governments who do not necessarily have the people's best interests at heart, it is not enough to just vote; you have to engage.
I tend to read between the lines and find things that usually aren't there to begin with, but what the hell. Reading these two books, this is what I found.
You have the individual who must prepare himself to engage in an increasingly interconnected and difficult job-market, society, world. This takes planning, intelligence, time and strategy. If you want to have even a middle-class life, you have to be prepared to strategically position yourself to potential employers. And you will have to keep doing this to survive -- to buy the car, the house, the flat-screen TV.
And yet, Nader is pointing to loftier goals. He is saying look, all that shit won't make you happy. It's advertisers and governments way of forcing you to continually keep up with the Joneses; it's society's way of playing your neuroses like a harp. The key to a good life and a healthy life and a happy life is to fight injustice any way that you can -- in your society, your city, your neighbourhood. Don't waste time on trivial things; think of what you can contribute to society.
Which is the better choice -- the career and the family and the inevitable path that those structures necessitate, or the more laborious, less ostentatiously fulfilling road of social engagement? How do you balance your own needs, which are, by their very nature, inherently selfish, with the notion that you could be putting your own energies to better, more nobler uses? And to what end? You can end up divorced, paying alimony to an ex-wife to you hate and with kids who barely know you, or end up like Ralph Nader, alone at seventy, no wife, no family, no companions, driven by work?
Is there a middle ground?
I'm oversimplifying things, obviously, but it's something I often think about. I don't have a car, or a house, or a flat-screen TV. Do I want those things? I dunno. I do know that I want to engage in work that contributes something to the world around me, but I'm not sure that a single-minded, blind pursuit aimed at solving society's ills will necessarily result in contentment. An hour spent watching The Daily Show: Global Edition is an hour that I could have spent tutoring some poor kid in the slums. But just as Doestoevsky's Underground Man said that it's sometimes fun to smash things, so do I say that it's sometimes fun to chill out in front of Jon Stewart. Where do you balance the insatiable needs of the ego with the more humane tendencies that truly lift us up and take us to another level of humanity?
If teaching taught me anything, it's that you can see the effect, instantly, every day, that you have on another people. If you're pissed, it changes the texture and tone of the class. (I mean, of course, 'pissed' in the Canadian and American sense, not 'pissed' in the, you know, British sense. I'm aware that coming to class plastered out of your mind could change the mood of the room.) Alone in your cubicle, your mood only affects your own psyche. Standing in front of thirty nineteen year olds, your mood determines whether the next hour will be heaven or hell. (Or, as is usually the case, at least purgatory.)
No answers from me, only questions. Perhaps there's a middle ground, somewhere that satisfies our own selfish natures and allows the better parts of goodwill an outlet to the world at large.
I just wonder if settling for the 'middle ground' has ever created any lasting, resonant change -- in the world, or in ourselves.