choices


This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw “The Hero,” starring Sam Elliott as aging actor Lee Hayden. Lee had success early in his career but has been marking time ever since then. As he tells Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman barely older than his 34-year-old daughter who becomes his love interest, as a young man he starred in a movie that he is proud of. Since then he’s kept busy but hasn’t accomplished much. The opening scene shows what he has been doing; he records take after take of a commercial for barbecue sauce, “The perfect partner for your chicken.”

Lee checks with his agent regularly, hoping to be offered a movie script. Unfortunately none is forthcoming. Still, he yearns for one more chance at success. In his dreams, he often finds himself back in the movie for he was famous (also named “The Hero”), though when he returns there he is an old man. He’s divorced and has a strained relationship with Lucy, his daughter. He’s bungled things with Lucy; he’s been absent and inattentive. He feels badly about where things stand with her, but apparently not badly enough to change. He devotes his time and energies not to others but to smoking pot, often with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former acting buddy who is now his dealer.

Lee is stuck. However, two things happen that have the potential to change his life. First, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Second, he and Charlotte begin seeing each other. It’s not that the attentions of a woman can solve his problems, but the woman in this case has a somewhat different take on life than he does, and that opens him to new possibilities. One interaction between them goes something like this:

Lee: It’s kind of weird to be remembered for one part forty years ago.
Charlotte: Yeah, but it’s as close to immortality as most of us will get.

You’ve done better than you think, Charlotte seems to be saying. Don’t worry so much about your legacy. Live in the present rather than in the past or the future.

Here’s a conversation they have about their relationship, but also apparently about living one’s life:

Charlotte: So what do you want?
Lee: (uncomfortably) I don’t know.
Charlotte: Don’t think so hard about it, man.

Charlotte may give too little thought to what she’s doing with her life, living impulsively, profligately. Still, she’s a good corrective for Lee, who is paralyzed by his thoughts.

Why is the film called “The Hero?” Mary McCarthy wrote “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story,” Ironically, Lee, the man called “The Hero,” has for decades avoided being the hero in his own life. He has evaded self-knowledge and the commitment to others required to develop and sustain relationships. His cancer diagnosis and Charlotte’s provocations are invitations to the hero’s journey (I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell’s description of the mythological hero who is called to adventure, resists, accepts the call, enters an unfamiliar world, undergoes an ordeal, and returns home with a reward).

Besides coming from cancer and Charlotte, Lee’s invitation to the hero’s journey also comes from within himself. The dreamscape that he enters when asleep has two recurring scenes. In the first, he is a cowboy who encounters a man hanging from a tree. In the second, he stands on the ocean shore, looking out toward the horizon. I take the first of these to be an intimation of his mortality. One approach to dream interpretation is to see everything in the dream as representing a part of the dreamer; in this case, the lynched man would represent him. The second scene, with the vastness of the ocean and the force of its waves, might represent all that is greater than Lee–the infinite, the eternal, the divine. Like Lee, we are prone to live selfish, constricted lives until we are confronted either by suffering and death or by that immensity that makes us feel tiny by comparison. Will we try to hide from what we’ve seen, or will we accept the invitation to venture out into it?

Lee reacts poorly at first. He can’t even manage to tell anyone he has cancer, though he tries. He avoids setting an appointment with the oncologist, not wanting to face his dire medical condition. During the last third of the film, he makes some progress, though I won’t give details here. Suffice it to say that, having for decades avoided being the hero of his own life, there’s only so much he can accomplish in the few days covered in the film. Lee may have accepted the call to heroism, but he hasn’t progressed very far in the journey.

I’ll close by describing the final scene in the film; this is something of a spoiler, so don’t read on if you would rather not know how it ends. Remember that in the first scene Lee was in a studio recording the soundtrack for a commercial. In the final scene, he is back in the same sound studio, recording a follow-up commercial for a new version of the same product. It seems that he has gotten exactly nowhere during the film. But is that so? In the opening scene, he appeared a little irritated having to repeat the same phrase over and over, a little contemptuous of what he was doing to earn a living. I may be reading too much into the final scene, but the irritation appears to be gone and he seems at peace even while doing something so prosaic. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do something ordinary or banal again and again, perhaps bemused that life had come to this but more than anything just glad to be alive? May we all achieve that measure of contentment.

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On his blog The Quest for the Good Life, Andy Tix wrote a post titled “Confessions of a Trump Skeptic.” He admitted to having been overly preoccupied with politics over the past six months and to having despaired over the results of the election in the U.S. I can relate; in fact, I wrote a similar post in November. What struck me most about Andy’s post, though, was his account of the Introduction to Psychology class he taught the day after the election was held:

” I was expecting people to be confused and fearful like me, but what I’ll most remember were some students ‘high-fiving’ in celebration.

“The topic of the day just so happened to be the social psychology of prejudice, and so I began the class hesitantly asking my students to comment how their reading connected with their experience of the election. A young woman cautiously raised her hand, and remarked that ‘the election has caused me to shut down in fear.’ I asked why, again assuming she would be like me. I’ll never forget her response: she said it had felt impossible to tell anyone how she had voted for our new President-elect because of worry that they would regard her as a bigot.”

Andy quickly realized that he had made assumptions about those who had voted differently from him that in many cases were inaccurate. In other words, he had stereotyped, thinking of Trump supporters as all alike. He had judged them as “uncaring, ignorant, unenlightened fools.” Perhaps some are. But for every white supremacist or Neo-Nazi who voted for the Republican ticket there were dozens who were more concerned with issues such as the decline of the middle class, the growth of government regulation, or the character of the Democratic nominee. Among them were both of my siblings and my mother.

Andy includes in his post a response he gave on Facebook to a friend who was struggling with issues of faith and politics. He wrote the following:

“Part of the lesson here for me is to be humble enough to really try to understand the appeal of a man like Trump to basically good people like many of my family members and friends who voted for him. I feel like I need to do a better job of listening to people different from me–particularly those with different ways of thinking about issues such as these.”

There’s an irony in our not listening well to those different from us. Logically, we are least likely to be able to correctly predict the thought patterns of those who are most different from us. These, then, would be the people we would need to listen to most carefully in order to get any sort of understanding of how they reason about issues. In contrast, those who express opinions much like our own on a wide variety of issues probably think about the world much as we do, so we don’t need to listen as carefully or probe as deeply in order to understand their reasoning processes. Why then, do we do the opposite of what makes sense– why do we listen only briefly and superficially to those who differ from us, but carefully to those who share our opinions? And why then are we so sure we understand those who are different from us when we haven’t given them much of a hearing?

Perhaps part of the reason we tend not to listen to those who are different from us is the outgroup homogeneity effect–the tendency to view all members of some group of which we aren’t members as alike. In contrast, we see the members of our own group as more varied. I’m part of the ‘group’ of Clinton voters, but offhand can think of at least a dozen people I know who are members of what is for me the ‘outgroup:’ Trump voters. They all are white, but other than this one common feature they vary tremendously–in demographic characteristics such as age and gender, but also in their degree of enthusiasm for their candidate and their reasons for voting as they did. I’ve talked with a few of them in depth about the election, and it’s evident that the differences among them outweigh the commonalities.

Andy mentioned the need for humility. Besides empathy, that’s probably the quality most lacking as we look across the political divide. The psalmist writes about taking a stance of humility before God:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother….” (From Psalm 131, NRSV)

I wonder whether psalmist’s aversion to occupying his thoughts “with things too great and marvelous for me” pertains not only to the proper way to approach God but also the proper way to think about others. My imagination can never encompass the totality of their feelings, beliefs, and motives. It’s only when in humility I give up my conviction that I know what they are thinking that I can truly hear what they have to say. That’s something I have to remind myself of again and again.

Image from democracynow.org

Image from democracynow.org

About a week after the recent U.S. election, I wrote a post regarding the ways I had not followed the path of the pilgrim during the preceding months. The pilgrim’s path is characterized by kindness, clearsightedness, humility, faith in God’s care, and a “hermeneutic of generosity” (Paul Farmer’s phrase for interpretations that give others the benefit of the doubt). Writing about my shortcomings in this regard has helped me subsequently be less preoccupied with current political machinations and more focused on God’s love for all that he has made. It’s helped moderate my fear and anger. What’s left, though, is still sorrow–sorrow mainly for the “losers”–those who will experience negative consequences as a result of the election–but also sorrow for many of the “winners,” particularly those whose votes were based on a narrow self-interest that had in it no room for concern for the well-being of the immigrant, the refugee, or the foreigner. Some of these winners may be disappointed if the new political order doesn’t deliver on some of its promises to them, but I’m mostly concerned that some might get precisely what they want to their detriment. Benefiting at the expense of people less fortunate than you may please you, but it’s not good for your soul.

a-testament-of-devotionI’ve been particularly struck by something I read recently in A Testament of Devotion by Quaker writer and scholar Thomas R. Kelly. The book was copyrighted in 1941, but the chapter from which the quote came was apparently a lecture delivered to the yearly meeting of Quakers held in March, 1939. Kelly’s topic was “Holy Obedience,” which he introduced with a quote by Meister Eckhart:

“There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.”

Kelly encourages his listeners to follow Jesus all the way. He tells them some benefits will result, among them holiness, humility, simplicity, and suffering. Yes, he considers suffering a benefit. Some will suffer because of oppression, some because of hardship, and, Kelly seems to think, some will suffer because of the suffering of others. Of course there is always someone somewhere who is suffering. I’ve never become calloused to that suffering, though. If anything, it bothers me now more than ever.

Kelly alludes to a conversation he had with a Hindu monk, who told him, “Nothing matters; everything matters.” I think I’ve been able to attend less to politics the last few months because of one side of this paradox–nothing matters. Yet I feel sorrow because of the other side–everything matters. For Kelly, this included “the blighted souls of Europe and China and the Near East and India.” When he wrote early in 1939 Japan had already invaded China and Europe was arming itself in preparation for the war that started later that year. Kelly spelled out the implications for those who sought to follow Jesus the other half of the way:

“In my deepest heart I know that some of us need to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or may not mean a change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will need to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the ‘Eternal Internal’ which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk in the Middle Ages.”

Our time is perhaps less tragic than his. Or perhaps not–“the blighted souls” of Syria are being devastated by war; suffering humanity is turned away at many borders; nations exchange threats; nuclear weapons stand at the ready; seas rise from ice-melt as the world warms. I’m less inclined than I used to be to compare the miseries one time to those of another. All times are too tragic; God’s sorrow is always too great; man’s night is always too dark. And there will always be those who are untroubled by such realities and those who respond with the renunciation and dedication that Kelly called for.  The more thought I give to the pilgrim path, the less I’m able to ignore what transpires in the world.

On a recent lengthy car trip I decided to get caught up on current pop music trends. I listened to most of the Sirius XM Weekend Countdown and a little of the Billboard Adult Top 40. Yeah, I’m too old for this sort of music. I listen to it because I’m interested in the themes of pop songs–they reveal much about the dreams, fears, and preoccupations a sizable segment of our culture.

As usual, there were plenty of songs about romantic relationships, ranging from lust (Selena Gomez – Hands To Myself) to yearning (Tryon – Somebody To Love Me)  to lovemaking (Zayn Malik – Pillowtalk) to disgust (Selena Gomez – Same Old Love). Justin Bieber apologizes to one mate (Sorry) and walks away from another (Love Yourself). What really interested me, though, was not the relationship songs but the ones that portrayed how the artist perceived him- or herself. Our self-concepts are key to our identity, and culture provides templates for possible selves (my grandchildren can choose to be sullen rebels or competitive achievers, but identities like gentleman of leisure or devotee of the goddess of reason are no longer in the catalogue of potential selves). From this listening, I concluded that contemporary songs contain views of the self ranging all the way from grandiose self-sufficiency to anxious inadequacy.

Grandiose self-sufficiency is represented by  “Me, Myself, and I” By G-Eazy with Bebe Rexha. Here’s the chorus:

Oh, it’s just me, myself and I
Solo ride until I die
‘Cause I got me for life (yeah)
Oh I don’t need a hand to hold
Even when the night is cold
I got that fire in my soul

The video shows G-Eazy at a party surrounded by adoring fans but miserable about his lack of privacy. He raps about what he needs–privacy, space, to be alone–and what he wants:

A Stella Maxwell right beside of me
A Farrari I’m buyin’ three
A closet of Saint Laurent…

He thinks he is a self-made man, a trendsetter who is reaping the fruits of his efforts, “swimming in money, swimming in liquor.” Yet  success has brought too much attention. There’s a segment in the video when he’s divided into three images, two of which are telling the third that he shouldn’t complain: he wanted success and adulation of the masses comes with the territory. Then, near the end, there is this:

Yeah, lonely nights I laid awake
Pray to lord, my soul to take
My heart’s become too cold to break
Know I’m great but I’m broke as hell
Having dreams that I’m folding cake
All my life I’ve been told to wait
But I’ma get it now, yeah it’s no debate.

The grandiose self is shut off from others, “too cold to break.”  In splendid isolation it knows it’s great–I thought here of Satan isolated in Dante’s deepest level of hell–but, paradoxically, at the same time it’s broken (the “broke as hell” here seems to refer not to lack of money but some sort of inner impairment). Some identity-seekers perusing the catalogue of possible selves might find grandiosity appealing. Wittingly or not, G-Eazy shows that such a self-concept won’t make you happy.

An elevated sense of self is also in evidence in Demi Levato’s “Confident,”; in which she sings again and again (ad nauseum):

(Ah ha) What’s wrong with being, what’s wrong with being
What’s wrong with being confident? (Ah ha)

And being confident is pretty much all the song is about. She’s responding to criticism:

(Oh oh, oh) So you say I’m complicated
That I must be outta my mind
But you had me underrated
Rated, rated.

But, like her confidence, the criticism she’s received is amorphous, unlike the comments that Taylor Swift was shaking off a couple years ago. So, should you define yourself via your high level of confidence? Sure, if that confidence reflects particular abilities or knowledge or effort. Otherwise, maybe not.

Another song asserting a strong sense of self (“Take or leave who I am/cause this is me.”) is “Pride” by  American Authors. The self in question is, not surprisingly, defined by a sense of pride:

I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride
I ain’t never letting go, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever gonna sell my soul
I-I-I-I got this feeling
I-I-I got this feeling
I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride.

Why such insistence on holding onto pride? Has the singer done something to be proud of? The lyrics don’t mention anything. Instead, they portray a diminished self, one for whom things aren’t going well:

My home don’t feel the same
Last year flew by; goodbye to the good vibes
What we thought were the best times
Nights out with the people I love
Now I’m lost in the neighborhood

Why has life turned sour? Maybe it’s the booze (“Another drink down the drain/Ten more before I get on the plane”). Maybe it’s rejection by family (“Pushed out of the family tree/Upside down”). Somewhere around the edges there is a suspicion that he’s responsible (“Maybe I’m the one who’s changed or the one to blame,” “wish I was good enough for anyone”). I wonder if holding onto pride of this sort–not justifiable good feelings about one’s accomplishments, but pride in the service of stubborn defiance–is a defense against becoming too aware of our role in our problems. It’s a way of adapting, but not a particularly good one. This sort of self-concept isn’t likely to foster healthy relationships or emotional well-being.

There are other interesting songs that have implications about how to view ourselves–I like Panic at the Disco’s “Victorious,” which seems to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the glories of winning, subtly suggesting that victors aren’t that grand after all. I’m most fascinated with Twenty-One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.” Whereas most song lyrics portray the singer expansively or even heroically, these lyrics are about a diminished self who can’t seem to get anything right:

I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard,
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words,
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new,
I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang.

What’s the problem? The singer has left childhood behind but hasn’t yet figured out how to handle what comes next. He’s become even more insecure than he was as a child:

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink,
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think.

He’s left reminiscing about the joys of childhood play:

We used to play pretend, give each other different names,
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away,
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face,
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money.”

Returning to the womb of parental protection sounds pretty good:

Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days,
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.

This is the opposite of G-Eazy’s grandiose self–a self diminished, not expanded, by growing up, a self plagued by insecurities and perceived inadequacies. The video shows the members of the group riding tricycles, suggesting they aren’t even mature enough to drive cars. In the catalogue of available selves, this is not a model that anyone would choose. We are in an age of limited prospects for all but a minority of high-achievers, though, and this is a self that many people will be saddled with.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I remember when the first McDonalds opened in my hometown. There wasn’t any seating, just a walk-up window. The burgers cost 15 cents, which was a bargain even in the 1960s. More McDonalds opened, and they eventually had seating and a more extensive menu. Burger King, Arbys, and Wendys soon followed. Fast-food culture has been criticized both for the quality of the food and the hurried lifestyle it represents. At least fast-food restaurants served meals, though. We used to sit down three times a day to eat, but many of us don’t manage that any more. We eat on the run, and often what we are eating are snacks rather than meals.

A recent Associated Press article by Candice Choi documents the decline of meals. Food industry experts reportedly state that “Snacks now account for half of all eating occasions, with breakfast and lunch in particular becoming ‘snackified’…”  According to Marcel Nahm, an executive with Hershey, “People are snacking more and more, sometimes instead of meals, sometimes with meals, and sometimes in between meals.”  Hershey and other purveyors of packaged, processed foods are seeking to take advantage of this trend. Hershey offers snack mixes, Tyson offers packs of cut-up chicken, and Kellogg’s offers To Go shakes and cereal pouches.

Kellogg's to goThese products and others marketed as snacks are designed for convenience. Too much trouble to get out meat, mustard, lettuce, and bread to make a sandwich? Just open a meat pouch and snack away. The AP article doesn’t mention it, but the move to greater snacking seems a form of “life hack.” According to Wikipedia, a life hack is “any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life.” The less time spent on meal preparation or consumption, the more time available to get things done.

Of course, wanting to hack food in particular or hack life in general is based on a singular view of what life is about. Giving up the pleasures and benefits of eating regular meals only makes sense if productivity is more important than those pleasures and benefits. Is getting as much done as we possibly can really what life is about? The gains that shortcuts like snacking provide are costly to our health and our emotional well-being. They also are costly to our relationships, since food is about relationships, starting the parent-infant bond at feeding time and including the family meal, formal dinners, and lunch with friends.

Of course, social trends that reach extremes are usually met with some sort of backlash. Snackers/food hackers are counterbalanced by foodies who devote considerable time and effort to rituals of food selection, preparation, and consumption. Snackers devote little thought to what they eat; foodies think about it all the time. Snackers satisfy momentary cravings; foodies plan far in advance where and what they’ll eat. Snackers eat in private; foodies dine with others or use social media to share their food choices.

But foodies, too, have a singular view of what human life is about. Foodies aren’t just trying to eat healthily and save the planet; they are also interested in food as experience and see life as a venue for maximizing sensory and emotional pleasures. As such, at their worse they are prone to the vices of the gourmet–snobbery, waste, and priggishness.

Rather than hacking food or making it the focus of life, I try to take a middle way. I’ll occasionally snack on nuts or a piece of fruit to tide me over, but always manage to eat three meals a day. I learn enough about food that I can eat healthily, but don’t spent a lot of time on food or nutrition sites. I eat alone sometimes, and sometimes with others. I’ve never posted a picture of a meal on social media. I think there are lots of people like me. We don’t go by a catchy name like food hackers or foodies, but I’d like to think that we have a more sensible attitude toward food than either of those groups. So snackers, give up your unhealthy ways, and foodies, give up your obsessions! Join us in the broad and anonymous center! Up with gastronomical moderation!

More stuff! Image from forbes.com.

More stuff! Image from forbes.com.

On Black Friday, as I was on my computer looking at other people’s Amazon wish lists and thinking of what I would like for Christmas, I ran across an article by Suzanne Gerber titled “How Much More Stuff Do We Really Need?” She had written it following a previous Black Friday. Do we need more? She thought not:

“I know I don’t need any more stuff. In fact, I need a whole lot less. Over the past year or so, I’ve undertaken the (ongoing) task of ‘deacquisitioning.’ I’ve given away, thrown out or sold more stuff than most people in developing nations will ever own — possibly more stuff than exists in some of those countries. And there’s still so depressingly much more to go.”

A couple months ago, I wrote a post on hoarding. In it I talked about hoarding as a continuum. The hoarding diagnosis is given only to those whose accumulation of things overtakes their living space. There are many people who aren’t technically hoarders but who are struggling to manage the stuff they have, though. Most of us in the US do have more possessions than we need, and we have trouble getting rid of the excess. So why again this year are so many of us visiting stores or online sites where we can get more? Why, if we are already drowning, are the pumps still set to “more” rather than “less”? Is it, as I wrote years ago, that we define ourselves by possessions and feel diminished when we disperse them?

Of course, most of us are buying gifts for others, not buying things for ourselves. Still, we’re selecting things that we think the other person will want to keep, perhaps things they have listed themselves, so someone will be accumulating more, even if it isn’t the purchaser. My Amazon wish list has 15 items on it right now. I could delete the whole list and not suffer want. When others ask what I want for Christmas, I could say “Nothing.” Yet doing so seems curmudgeonly. Not buying anything to give seems even worse. I like to give; it makes me feel good to do something for others. So I give gifts, even though I know they aren’t needed.

James K.A. Smith believes that we are shaped by the liturgies in which we habitually participate. By “liturgies” he means not only what happens in church services but also what happens in places like sports stadiums, dining halls, and malls–places where people engage in actions that define who they are or give meaning to their lives. Shopping and exchanging gifts help shape our identities as consumers. As we repeat the activity year after year, we build lives around what we own. Our mental horizons don’t give a clear line of sight beyond all the proximate stuff that surrounds us.

That’s a bleak prospect, but I’m still not ready to stop giving and receiving gifts. I’m making my purchases quite modest, though. When my children were young, we gave gifts on December 6, St. Nicholas Day, so we could keep Christmas itself for the liturgy of Christian worship, not the liturgy of gifts and possessions. Now that they are grown I don’t keep so rigorously to that separation. Still, the great majority of the gift’s I’m giving or receiving will have been exchanged by December 15. That will leave plenty of time to focus my attention elsewhere for the rest of Advent and Christmas.

I recently read an interview at the Atlantic website with Miya Tokumitzu, author of the book Do What You Love and Other Lies about Success and Happiness. In the original article out of which the book grew, Tokumitzu wrote:

Do what you love“There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.”

Most workers are dehumanized, in her view, because most work isn’t lovable–it’s dreary and mindless. Only those from privileged backgrounds have the luxury of choosing work they love rather than work they need to survive. And those eager to do work they are passionate about regardless of the circumstances are often mistreated by employers:

“Ironically, DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to Pin and Tweet on weekends, the 46 percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.”

In the Atlantic interview Tokumitzu suggests that the impetus behind DWYL is the desire for happiness. She thinks that the WWII generation was still under the influence of the Protestant work ethic, which views work as a calling, but the Boomer generation discarded calling in favor of a culture of the self, characterized by “thinking about what makes me happy and how to improve myself.” She thinks that “the virtue strain of work and the self strain of work combined in the late 1970s and 1980s, and in a way pleasure-seeking became the virtue.”

When people seek work they love, are they just seeking pleasure, though? Tokumitzu thinks that DWYL is a form of self-indulgence, but I suspect it derives more from a desire for self-fulfillment. And self-fulfillment isn’t just a more acceptable way to speak about being self-centered. Charles Taylor suggests that there is a moral force behind the modern drive to self-fulfillment:

“What we need to explain is what is peculiar to our time. It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, they feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.” The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 17

For Taylor, what these workers are pursuing is not pleasure or happiness but authenticity. Taylor briefly traces the history of the moral ideal of authenticity from the Romantic era until recent times. A particularly important contribution was that of German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who suggested that each of us has an original way of being human. We each need to discover our own way of being human, ignoring societal pressures that would distract us from this quest. Aren’t those who want to do work they love seeking to be authentic in this way? Aren’t they trying to be true to their unique nature in the work they do?

Taylor points out that this struggle for authenticity won’t succeed if it is just an inner quest. Defining our authentic selves requires interaction with others; it is a dialogic process. Also, defining ourselves can only be done successfully in the context of some “horizon of significance,” that is, some perspective on what constitutes a meaningful or significant life, whether this horizon comes from God or nature or science or some other source.

If Taylor is right, then it may make good sense to do what we love. We just need to be in dialog with others when looking for what we love. We also need to think of the horizon of significance in which that love operates. I wrote a few years ago about work and calling, pointing out that the idea of calling has been secularized and arguing for a recovery of a more sacred sense of being called for a particular purpose. Perhaps such an infusion of overarching meaning into the workplace would mean that in doing what we love we would be true to ourselves in a way that doesn’t make personal happiness the sole criterion of what we should do.

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