The path out of childhood often feels like one of the moving walkways you see in airports; there is a single direction you are being pushed in, and you are flanked by barriers on either side to keep your from deviating. Most of childhood is spent half-sleepwalking, half-rebelling against this life-directional conveyor belt. Especially by the time we arrive at high school, our final highly structured day jail, most of us cannot wait to cross the finish line and be deemed “adults.”

Yet a life spent on a single clear path leaves most of us ill-prepared for the vagaries of adult responsibilities and adult freedom — least of all for the freedom without responsibility that is the 18-year-old student’s experience of college. Having grown used to seeing the path in front of us, we now find life an endless fog of possibilities, most of which we aren’t experienced or imaginative enough to even realize are available to us. Freedom from the conveyor belt, more often than not, is so terrifying that we begin desperately to seek out replacements.

The last time the people of this fine house invited me onto their front porch, I spoke of telescopic morality, a myopia born of an unhealthy relationship to the modern informational environment. I called it “a form of tunnel vision”, but it isn’t the only one, nor is information the only thing we are capable of forming unhealthy and self-destructive relationships with. Our work — that is, how we happen to make our living — is an enormous part of most of our lives and tunnel vision in that setting is all too common. We’ve all seen it happen; perhaps it has even happened to you. One or two days working late to polish off some specific things suddenly becomes your regular routine. You start to believe that it has to be this way to keep your job, but from the outside it does not appear that way to your coworkers. And what’s really going on is revealed when you switch jobs and engage in exactly the same behavior.

It’s tunnel vision. Instead of focusing on far away injustice — instead of telescopic morality, in other words — you’re focusing on one hammer with which to hit every conceivable nail that comes up on the job; more hours of work. Both involve a blindness to the wide world outside of that focus, including things very close to us. And the treatment for both must begin by looking away. Turn off your laptop, put down your phone. Take a vacation, if necessary. The answer is not going to be found either on Tumblr or at the office.

But why do people find it so easy to slip into this sort of tunnel vision?

The drama of adulthood is set against a backdrop of fundamental uncertainty. Especially in societies that were nurtured on the bloody foundation of modern pluralism, we are largely left to our own devices, with very little to institutionally structure our lives and our priorities. So we grasp for concreteness where we can find it in the fog, and when we find even a little of it, we hold on for dear life. The belief that we are supposed to have a job, that we are supposed to work, is near-universal in a country like the United States. Because it is so broadly held, because it’s one thing that we know is expected of us and that we expect of ourselves, many throw themselves into it and define themselves thereby. “What do you do?” becomes substitute for “what kind of person are you?”

Things aren’t entirely unstructured; there’s a vague outline that most people are encouraged to follow from cradle to grave. It starts with schooling, then a career, then marriage, then a family, then grandchildren, and then death. But that outline is pretty broad — and there are plenty of moral frameworks and narratives widely available which reject several parts of the outline without offering much in return. The universe of possible particularities is almost as vast as the number of atoms in the actual physical universe. What’s an aspiring moral adult to do?

The worst thing that we can do is seek certainty that is cheap and easy. Karl Popper rightly saw the flight from ambiguity and uncertainty as the central motivation behind seeking to close an open society. Less politically, it helps explain why James Frey would feel the need to fabricate a life of debauchery before turning his life around, and our modern fascination with stories of redemption more generally. The central contrivance of these stories is that once you have experienced true wickedness — once you have hit rock bottom — you can finally obtain moral clarity. In other words, to know true sin is to understand the need for salvation.

I have nothing but respect for the reformed addict who stays on the wagon, and anyone else who has picked themselves up and made something of themselves after falling into moral error for longer or shorter periods of their lives. But I do not think it is healthy to seek certainty by hitting rock bottom. It is much better to strive to get it right the first time, or at least get in the ballpark.

This is no easy task, but we are not entirely without guidance. The first step, the crucial one for breaking the tunnel vision, is to step back and ask yourself a few hard questions about your life as a whole. As Julia Annas puts it:

“We all think in retrospect about actions we have done and feelings we have had. For me to think about my life as a whole requires something further — I have to step back to some extent from my immediate present and projects, and think about my past and future. How have I come to have the projects I now have, and the attitudes I now have to those projects, and to many other things and people? To think about my life as a whole is to ask how I have become the person I now am, how past plans, successes and failures have produced the person who now has the present projects and attitudes that I have. And it is also to think about the future. How do I see my present plans continuing? Am I happy to go on living much as I have done, or do I hope, and perhaps intend, to change my commitments and attitudes?”

What’s needed is prudence, and not merely in its modern sense, but in the old sense of wisdom in practical matters. We often aren’t really willing to have an honest conversation with ourselves or others about what our options are. In a modern, affluent society, most of us have many more options than we think worthy of consideration. But if we really are drowning in our work out of fear of losing our job, several other possibilities come to mind: move to a much cheaper town and work a less prestigious job than you think you should. Or take a job that requires travel and has a definite end date; like a tour with the Peace Corps. Or, less radically, consider that there may be jobs within your industry that don’t pay as well but may be less demanding, and leave you more time for yourself and your loved ones. Simply considering the more radical possibilities can be a liberating experience, even if you opt for a more conservative route.

The resources for beginning to answer these questions are all around us. At the top are the people in our lives who we admire — observing how they live, but also talking openly with them about our worries and our questions, is the beginning of wisdom. There are other resources, of course — stories, especially those that have stood the test of time. History and especially the biographies of morally admirable people. Even self-help and business books, much maligned, can be useful. Sturgeon’s law applies of course, but genres which include deep investigations of the role of generosity or willpower are surely not morally or intellectually bankrupt. And for some, philosophy may be of use as well — that is the particular treatment that Annas is a proponent of, for instance.

The goal in all of this is not to find complete certainty, especially not the cheap and easy certainty of the dogmatist, which is just another form of cowardice. Instead it is “to impose a theme on the muddle of sensations, on the random dislocated moments that add up to a life.” The now overused saying that “good artists copy, great artists steal” applies here — just as the great artist is not original yet somehow manages to make his work his own, the moral adult seeks to make his life his own, even if there is nothing particularly original about it. He seeks to have just enough certainty to have faith in his footing, without the utter certainty that is only available by means of self-delusion.

Step off the conveyor belt for a spell. Stop focusing quite so hard; let the peripheries of your vision fill in. Ask yourself how you got here, and where you should from here. Begin to take the steps, however tentative, towards making your life your own.

(Image source)

6 COMMENTS

  1. Great stuff. Thanks for writing.

    “The belief that we are supposed to have a job, that we are supposed to work, is near-universal in a country like the United States.”
    The Servile State, no?

  2. Hey Brian,

    Glad you liked it!

    I don’t know that I’d be quite so harsh as that, though I agree people feel like they _have_ to make themselves beholden to their employers. It’s troubling but the desire to work can be honest and good too, and one of the great things about this country. My grandfather was born in Cuba, and he wanted to work for a local carpenter during the summer, but in Cuba, for a boy to work would signal to everyone that his father was having money troubles. So he wasn’t allowed to (though he did it anyway, on the sly).

    So I respect people who want to work. I just don’t think they should let it consume them. Nor is it going to provide them with answers to the big questions.

  3. There seems to be a bit of a space between the feet and the ground here. “By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread.” It’s a pretty plain and eternal truth that we each require a certain amount of labor to live, so that if we don’t produce real wealth equal to what we consume we’re effectively stealing our subsistence. “The desire to work can be honest and good”? Yes, I should say so. To Brian: a servile state befalls those who work for those who don’t. Those who refuse to work may escape the “servile state,” but they also impose a servile state on those working to support them. To imply that those who work are necessarily doing so in obedience to an oppressive government is absurdly false. There is obedience in it, but it is to the laws of creation. It seems to me hard to argue that the first requirement of adulthood is the capacity to produce value at least equivalent to what one consumes.

    That our labor is largely debased is surely true. But I’d suggest this argument might be far stronger if it were grounded in a more sound understanding of work as a basis of real wealth and and an indispensable means to that full engagement in the creation that is adulthood.

    But intellectuals devaluing real labor goes back to the Greeks. As a manual laborer living in a college town, this is a pet peeve, I admit.

  4. “To Brian: a servile state befalls those who work for those who don’t.”
    Well, maybe that would be “a servile state” but I was pretty explicitly referring to the Belloc use of the term, and what you’ve written is not what The Servile State means.

    “Belloc then makes his case for the natural instability of pure capitalism and discusses how he believes that attempts to reform capitalism will lead almost inexorably to an economy in which state regulation has removed the freedom of capitalism and thereby replaced capitalism with the Servile State, which shares with ancient slavery the fact that positive law (as opposed to custom or economic necessity by themselves) dictates that certain people will work for others, who likewise must take care of them”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Servile_State

    Look at our current society, and allow me to speak in broad generalities. Want to work? You have to have a college degree. Want a college degree? You have to take on large amounts of debt, amounts that just in the past 20 years have become so large for many that they can never escape it. How to pay it off? You better go work for a big company. Want medical care? You have to have health insurance. How to get medical insurance? You better go work for a big company, since the health insurance system is massively biased against anyone who doesn’t, a fact that has only gotten more and more explicit and pronounced in the last few years. Want to collect a government pension? You better have worked for a long time for a big company. Etc., etc., etc.

    I completely valorize work, and agree with you 100% that “real labor” needs to be returned to a proper assessment of its value, certainly compared to “intellectual” labor that I have no problem in labeling as thereby somewhat “fake.” My criticism of the state of the current economy, and recognition that Belloc/Chesterton should be viewed as prophets in foreseeing how the past century would play out, infinitely more accurately than those experts on either side of the left/right false dichotomy, is not somehow an apology for he who simply refuses to work, and then bizarrely assume that he has the rights to the fruits of his neighbor’s labor.

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