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WHY WORK?


Earning one's livelihood swallows up such a disproportionate amount of life - even more than sleep, imagine! - that it begs the question: Do you really need to work? I mean in the sense of making money. Because the act of living itself is actually pretty laborious. Any goal-directed behavior, or for that matter any action that involves effort or burns calories, and all actions do, could be considered work. Your body metabolizes and respires and perspires until you finally expire. 

The Hindu holy man Ramakrishna Paramhansa once said, "Some individuals wish to be free of toil and yet cannot avoid it. Others desire to hold a job and cannot find one. Let your prayer be that you no longer have to work. And devote the energy you save to God." Of course this is controversial, coming from the man who also said, "Through selfless work, love of God grows in the heart."

Ah, to work or not to work.

As I see it, there are four reasons to hold a job. These are necessity; ego-gratification; boredom/distraction, or merely to avoid being called lazy; and altruism, which is the desire to be useful or to serve others. If you are not compelled by one of these reasons, then either you are extraordinary, or you should take tomorrow off.


The necessity-bound person requires a regular paycheck to support himself and possibly a family. Individual needs vary. In medical school I subsisted on $2,000 per month. This amount paid for food, rent, utilities, transportation and entertainment, with money left over for the following semester's books. Such a sum is a far cry from Johnny Depp's purported $2 million a month lifestyle, meaning he's 1,000 times as spendthrift as I. You are probably somewhere in between. Moderation being what it is, that's not a bad place to be. There's a joke in there somewhere. If you can think of one, come find me. I'll be between a rock and a hard place. Hmmm....


Most people aren't aware of how much of their monthly paycheck goes back into the business of making a living. As John Robbins describes in his great book The New Good Life, few consider that the cost of their vehicles and insurance, their phones, most of their wardrobe, and much of their caloric intake gets sunk back into their salary, so the actual $3,000 per month you take home is actually a lot less, even before taxes. Yes, some of these expenditures are tax deductible, but you never get back all of what you pay for. That Robbins, heir to the ice cream empire bearing his name, should even write such a book praising frugality gives me faith in the direction this world is headed. Or the direction one man is headed, but I am right behind him. I argue with Robbins that by drastically reducing expenses, as in wearing the same trousers to work more than once (or every day, if like me you're used to wearing a uniform), packing a lunch instead of dining out, and carpooling, you can instantly cut back on the hours you need to spend as an employee, all while making new friends. Of course most places want you to be all in or nothing. It's 40 hours per week and every other weekend or broke. So you can kiss your new friends goodbye.

For other people, work is a source of ego-gratification. This individual, and I know several, doesn't need to work. He has enough money to last until he dies, possibly enough even for several lifetimes. And yet he chooses to clock in and clock out each weekday. Although this person isn't usually on the clock. The one who gains praise from work is usually the head of the company. The lady up the street runs a charitable organization. She lives in a lovely house, drives a lovely car and has a husband who's also a professional. She tells me she is looking to reduce her workload, so as to spend more time at home, walking the dog, watering the plants, etc. And yet each morning I see her all dressed up and headed back into town to conquer the world. Force of habit, I guess. What am I doing on the road at that hour? Running around without shoes, of course. It's what I call work. There are lots of celebrities who work for the satisfaction work gives them. Athletes make touchdowns and shoot baskets and hit home runs and do whatever else they do for this very reason, and performers perform. Identifying with your job, especially if it involves cameos or celebrity status or if you get to be called "boss" is a double-edged sword. Sure praise feels good, but if the plants are dying at home... Me, I don't need to be a celebrity. I'm a legend in my own mind.


There are those who work for the distraction a daily job affords. While at the beach with a friend - Kelly, if you're reading, I had the wildest dream of you last night, and I'd like to tell you all about it, that is, if you'd deign to return my call! - we stopped at a corner store for some tasty beverages. The guy behind the counter, a wizened fellow with a taut drum of a belly, wispy white hair and a craggy face that was no stranger to the sun, told us he was retired, but he liked to work the register part-time just to have something to do. After his shift he told us he often headed to the water for an ocean swim. He seemed cheery enough, his affability finding an outlet in small-talk with strangers, and this balanced lifestyle seemed to suit him. And all that extra adiposity probably makes swimming more like effortless floating which can be done without a wet suit, since fat is such a good insulator. "Fat and happy," as they say. 


And yet I thought, a job is quite like a jail sentence. Either this guy needs the money, or he's trying to run away from something, like his own mind! Because why else would you spend your days in a dingy shack selling overpriced beer for minimum wage when you could be out surfing all day! It's not like the guy was in his early twenties living with parents always on his case to stop surfing porn and eating all their chips and go out and find work and don't come home until then. Which is why a lot of people who don't need the money also work. To avoid the implicit judgement that comes when you tell people who ask you what you're doing with your life, "I'm just living it." If you don't believe me, try it some time. Say: "We are human beings, not human doings. I am living true to my nature." And then watch their eyes glaze over.

Those who work not because they have to but because they enjoy helping others are in a select group. I can't think of many jobs that really serve society, in the sense of coming to the aid of those who are in need. Most needs are really wants, and few goods really benefit the user. For example, the remote control exists for your TV-viewing pleasure, but it would be much better for your widening derriere if you got up and actually changed the channel now and then. Think of all the children's toys that just wind up cluttering the living room, and the preponderance of breakfast cereals and flavored waters that cause diabetes. Even in the service industry, is the waitress really helping you by handing you that calorie bomb? Does the Texas Cheese Fries with Chili and Jalapeno Ranch, at over 2,000 calories a plate, exist for your culinary delight or is it merely a recipe for a coronary?


By my admittedly rather stringent definition, it would be better for the world if most goods and services didn't exist. And those jobs which actually do provide a useful service are the thankless, menial variety like trash collector and janitor. I've worked in the service industry more than once, and even while drunk myself, as I often was, I found it hard to justify selling that bourbon to the obvious alcoholic when it wasn't even yet noon. Like our Ernest Hemingway look-alike, for me that job was just something to do. And anyway, bartenders are sexy.

But there is a lot to do that doesn't involve making money, but still fulfills the definition of work. It can even involve delving into your own mind, and seeing what wild thoughts come to the surface of your consciousness. I told this to Kelly, who seemed freaked out by the prospect. But really, the wild thoughts are like choppy shore-breakers. Venture farther in and great stillness awaits. It's a metaphor I'm sure Ramakrishna would get, and our swimmer friend would also understand. 


So take tomorrow off and discover for yourself how much can be done when by society's standards you're not doing anything useful at all. If you're the boss, taking an impromptu vacay is easy. If not, you can say you're under the weather (not a lie, since that's where you'll be spending some of the day). Sure you may get canned, but losing your job may not be the worst thing that's ever happened to you. In fact, all those screenplays I wrote only after being let go. And they've never made me a dime. 

But as you can tell, money has never been a major motivation of mine. Doing something for sheer enjoyment, now that is extraordinary.



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