Yearning for the simple life

I’d rather make pencils than push them.

My whole life, I’ve been interested in stories about people who were able to make things and survive on their own. I remember reading the Little House books, The Sign of the Beaver, Diary of an Early American Boy, My Side of the Mountain, and The Wilderness Family and wishing I could have a life like that—living off the land, knowing how to build things, learning how to use resources. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, almost all of my favorite books either had that theme or took place in the 18th or 19th centuries (or both). In a similar vein, I love watching TV shows about that topic, such as Pioneer House on PBS or NBC’s Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls.

At some point during college, I realized that our economy is all fake. Money isn’t real, and most of the jobs held by people in the United States (or most “industrialized” countries) don’t produce anything. In that sense, we’re not really even “industrialized” anymore, since our economies aren’t driven by industry. In a knowledge-based economy, people basically get paid to think about things, organize things, talk about things, and record things, but not to be industrious—to actually produce anything. They’re paid to push pencils around.

On a side note, my grandfather, Augustus Graham Atkins (who went by Graham), worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. When my mom was little, she asked him what his job was, and he told her he was a pencil pusher. She took that literally, and figured it must mean that he pushed the pencils into the pencil sharpener while someone else turned the handle—the Henry Ford system of pencil sharpening!

Now, I know: producing knowledge is useful, too. Spreading knowledge is useful, and it improves our quality of life. But I can’t help thinking that most people don’t really even know what they contribute to society; they just go to work, and maybe even enjoy it, without really thinking about what they are producing. I’m one of them. Sure, I teach students about history, and I teach them how to think. But… why? What are they going to be producing?

Maybe some of them will become lawyers someday. Then what will they produce? Well, nothing. They will read things, write things, and say things in order to get someone in trouble or out of trouble.

Maybe some of them will become bankers or accountants. They will spend their days in meetings and/or looking at spreadsheets that calculate sums of imaginary money.

Some of them might become nurses or doctors. Well, okay, they won’t actually produce anything, but they will clearly be doing something useful, so I suppose I’ll exempt them.

How many jobs are left in our society in which people actually produce something both real and useful? Farmers, furniture makers, factory workers, mechanics, construction… not very many, when compared with the hordes of “knowledge workers,” and even fewer if you lump the people creating useless crap in with the people who produce nothing at all.

Okay, all of that is probably overly negative. I’m not opposed to thinking, obviously. I just think that somewhere along the way, humanity forgot about what matters. We started working just for the sake of working, and in order to do that, we had to make up jobs that, ultimately, are kind of meaningless. People started doing stuff just because other people were willing to pay them to do it, but neither party stopped to think about whether any of it was worth their time or money.

If we’re not producing anything with lasting value, why is it a job? And furthermore, how many of our own daily activities involve producing something? We have become so disconnected from production that most of us don’t know how to do it anymore. Cooking, sewing, building, fixing, growing…most people don’t do most of those things on a regular basis.

This reminds me of what William Morris said: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I would expand that to, “Work on nothing that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It turns out he had the same idea: as I was researching that quote to make sure I got it right, I found that Morris also said, “Worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of the pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill. All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work—mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.”

When I think of a simple life, I think of producing my own things—food, clothes, furniture. That’s not likely to happen anytime soon, because I don’t have time, but for me, it’s sort of the ideal. And I would love to have a job in which I make things every day. Imagine coming to the end of a workday and actually having something—a physical object—to show for it. That, to me, would be a great day.

This article appeared on page 8 of Issue 13 | January 2014.

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