The Patrick Coffin Show recently had an episode on despair.
Ours is an age of social disruption, isolation, and atomization. Rates of suicide among young people, rich and poor, along with instances of clinical depression are on the sharp rise since 1999. A dark ennui—call it despair, or melancholia, or depression—has settled into the lives of millions of people.
Ennui indeed, depression is a First World epidemic. It's rare, along with all its attendant results, in the Third World. Yes, the very people that people in the First World think live in a state of dark deperation, don't. That's the developed world. For all its problems, people in the more primitive less developed parts of the globe are a lot happier than we generally are. There's something going on.
If they have less in the way of material resources and less wealth, they have more of a lot of other things. They're more religious. They're more family oriented. They live closer to nature even if not all farmers or pastorialist by any means. They've kept a lot. . . so far, that we have lost. And they have a lot less of some things we have in abundance. They have less angst. They have less depression. They have less gender confusion. They seem to know who they are and what they are about.
And I wonder if one of the things we don't have is work that matters.
We have plenty of work that's about money. And the "best" jobs in our society are all about money, and little else. There are plenty of people whose jobs entail dealing solely with making money and nothing else, to include some jobs that are ostensibly about something else but which in reality, for quite a few occupying them, have become all about money. Some people have jobs that are only about money. And there's lots of jobs that aren't all about money, but rather are about. . . about. . . . well. . . .
Now, work has always been with us and unless a person is a hopeless romantic there's no earthly way to pretend that all work has always been worthwhile to the worker, other than perhaps in some basic sense that its work and work serves a purpose in and of itself. So, you might ask, how can I state that?
Well, I am stating that, and I think perhaps this observation is true.
This observation comes about in part, I'd note, due to some work last Sunday. But in my other occupation.
We were branding.
I love working cattle and I love the hard work part of it as well as the parts that aren't hard work. It's hard to be blue when doing it. Indeed, it's hard to focus on anything else.
And at the end of the day, you know what it was that you did.
And this is not true in a tangible sense for almost everyone working a modern job.
Only, or at least mostly, jobs that have a very direct, and I'd argue physical aspect, to them retain this feature. Being a cabinet maker does, and probably being a surgeon does. But people working in offices doing reports don't get it.
And because my next day was a day in the office, that was abundantly clear to me.
I rarely talk about my own office work directly for a lot of reasons. Indeed, I really can't. But I'll make a slight exception here.
I recently was working on a case that was venued in Colorado, and more specifically in one of the endless outliers of the Great Blight. The opposing counsel was consistently aggressively difficult to get along with even as it seemed that our facts were vastly out pacing their concept of the case. Finally, a setting of a certain type was held. I went and met opposing counsel whom I had only seen previously via their website head shots.
And there they were. An aging lawyer who was artificially thin, the way that people are who run off their weight in a desperate manner until they look unhealthy. And a somewhat younger lawyer who engages in some similar activity who had the facial complexion of wallpaper paste. And the latter continually had a sort of titch or grimace associated with people who are painfully ill at ease and nervous. It was revealing.
And the contrast is remarkable. On Sunday I dealt with young and old but a lot of now middle aged. Tan and healthy and all pretty happy and comfortable. A lot of people that I deal with in the refrigerated antiseptic offices in big cities aren't that way. . .unless they're the staff. The staff, which more concrete goals, often seem to be pretty happy.
And that might have to do with the lie that all work is meaningful.
It's all meaningful in some fashion. But at least on my day to day job, the fib that law school professors relate to the law is pretty clear. Perhaps its about "helping people" like its so often claimed, but that's far from apparent but it's really not generally the case that we ride in on unicorns and hurl out bunnies to the emotionally needy. I could go on, but I'll not. It's not that the work of this type, or work as an accountant, or a computer programmer, etc, isn't needed. Rather, its need is highly intangible and in some cases its needed because we've created a system of need requiring it.
I suspect that the nature of a lot of modern work creates a lot of despair. We're separated from nature, which we don't like, and ever more concentrated in big glass and steel heating and cooling units, which we don't like, and on a treadmill where we never see the completed cabinets, the built wall or the branded cattle. We're doing something, and indeed there must be a need for it or we wouldn't be paid to do it, but you can't really see your results in physical terms and in some cases the results in some kinds of work exist because we've created a system requiring that type of work.
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There's not a lot of consolation for reaching any one goal of an obvious nature.
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Not that this observation is brand new.
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Well what of it? Are we all to become Leo Tolstoy and abandon the larger world for the peasant commune?
No, probably not.
And indeed, most people can't afford to and quite a few who try some less weird version of this than Tolstoy did fail at it.
Which doesn't mean there isn't something to a Wendell Berry view of the world.
And that certainly isn't the prevailing view. The entire society has been pushed towards working at InnerTrobe.
Of course, I may be too harsh. Maybe people love the glass and steel refrigerated antiseptic worlds where they work on topics they've never never dealt with in the field, impacting lives of people much different than their own.
But the statistics don't seem to support it.
The question would be, how to restore meaning to work? That wouldn't be easy for much of our economy at this point, but it would seem that the level of despair associated with it would warrant it.
Making it less about money and more about value would be a good starting place.