Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Humanities Major’s Reflections on Work and Wealth

Since graduating college a couple years ago I’ve had to consider how the choices I made about what to do with my time as a student, a worker, and simply, a person in the past make me valuable and competitive within the practical needs of the labor market right now.

Those first few months out of school I was shocked I couldn’t simply do “anything” I wanted with a liberal arts BA in Anthropology.  It’s the promise of college, isn’t it? That if you work hard and earn your degree, you’ll have more options when you enter the labor market. But cleaning houses with other humanities majors was one of the first jobs I landed just to pay the bills after school ended.  Someone forgot to tell me that gaining perceivably practical skills in the eyes of employers was also a pre-requisite for choice in the job market.

Meanwhile, during the four years I’d spent writing social science papers in the library, a good friend from high school had dropped out of college and worked her way up to being manager of a restaurant.  Earning a middle class income, she could afford to buy a house and take trips to Mexico each summer, while, technically speaking, I was making a yearly income below poverty line and taking advantage of food stamps.  After I graduated college it hit me that my resume was composed on one end of academic skills like researching and writing and on another summer jobs involving menial labor. I didn’t know if I’d want to be in academia for the rest of my life, but I at least wanted to have the option not to be stuck there, so I decided I needed more real-world experience that would be a middle ground in my employment and experience spectrum.  I joined AmeriCorps and moved to Texas to counsel low-income students to stay in college.  Slightly ironic, I know.

A year and a half later, I’m 25 and still feeling anxious about answering that question everyone’s been asking since I was 12, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”   Though I still don’t know what I want to “be” exactly, I have managed to cobble together a decent job description for the time being that utilizes the practical skills I gained as an AmeriCorps member last year and also allows me to explore my love of yoga and academic interests in communication between cultures.  I’m just now starting to make bank on the promise of a college degree: by focusing on real-world skills in addition to academics, I now have the opportunity to explore my interests through the means I use to support myself materially.

Because of the wide scope of opportunities I can imagine on my horizon, even though I’m close to making enough money to qualify for food stamps, I’m not poor.  When I was in AmeriCorps we all joked about being “impoverished” while we tried to fight poverty, but the truth is there’s a difference between a bunch of people with college degrees making $12,000 a year and someone working at Wal-Mart who makes the same amount because they didn’t graduate high school.

That difference is more ineffable than a tax return, as it exists in the realm of possibility, in the ability to change and choose jobs and develop one’s “humanity” as a worker. David Bornstein outlines this new focus on psychology and attitude in the way even economists think about poverty in his blog post  “In the Fight Against Poverty, It’s Time for a Revolution:”

Amartya Sen, who won a Nobel Prize in economics, has argued that economists should think of poverty as that which deprives people of the opportunity to develop and use their capabilities. Others argue that the goal in anti-poverty efforts should be to help poor people increase their “capacity to aspire” and navigate toward self-defined goals. Researchers in the United Kingdom have developed tools to measure “well-being,” looking at such things as material goods, relationships and self-beliefs.

Discussions of the alleviation of poverty are more likely to be tinged with politics and blame when they involve more than simply providing the most basic of human necessities (food stamps, health care, housing and any kind of employment).  Here, though, economists aren’t using psychology to blame people for not working hard enough to pursue the “American dream”.  Rather, they’re pointing out that those born into the lowest income brackets face psychological fetters, such as beliefs about what they are and aren’t able to do, directly related to their material disadvantages.  This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how access to quality education and other tools used to develop and foster our human potential are typically more and less available to us depending on the economic circumstances we’re born into.

Rather than layering “human” needs over the basic materials we need to simply stay alive, the economists Bornstein refers to understand that upward mobilization, the self-determining feature of the American dream, can only be actualized when not only material, but relational and educational resources are equalized.

Of course, like all good ideas, this one isn’t necessarily new.  Redefining poverty in terms of the inability to pursue and cultivate our interests sounds a lot to me like the antithesis of Marx’s concept of the wealthy man. In the essay “Marx’s Atheism and the Ideal of Self-Realization” William O’Meara summarizes Karl Marx’s definition of wealth, which redefines necessity as not simply material:

Real wealth is found not in the sense of having money or things, but in the sense of being and of needing to be a person whose capacities of rationality and freedom are being developed through one’s own practical relationships with nature and social others.

Ideally, the way we spend our time working, or developing our “practical relationships with nature and social others,” helps us to become “self-realized,” or knowledgeable about the workings of our world and empowered to feel we can make an impact on it (of course there’s a cosmological significance  to self-realization, that we come to know through scientific knowledge we aren’t created by a God, but I won’t go into that right now).

Unfortunately, the emphasis on profit subsumes segments of a capitalist society to an assembly line of the production of goods. Workers are evaluated in terms of the value of their labor, making them replaceable parts that can be interchanged, rather than holding any inherent value themselves.  This has the psychological affect of what Bornstein describes as a crowd of defeated and pessimistic people standing in the unemployment line.

Whether or not you think communism or socialism is a good idea, in a free and democratic society it’s not fair to suggest that only a particular portion of our society has the right to develop their inherent ability to reason and create, or to develop their unique talents, which is why I think economists are brining attention to the relational and psychological needs of those born into poverty. McMara writes of Marx’s view:

To treat things, money, or capital as the real wealth that human beings should seek is to make a fetish of these commodities; it is to endow these things with a quality of being worthwhile for their own sake whereas they are or should be only means useful for the development of human rationality and freedom.

 Of course, I probably like Marx’s redefinition of wealth because it legitimates my humanities degree in a way my literal income can’t (yet!).  Pursuing knowledge and creativity for their own sake, and not because they’re lucrative income options with which to purchase commodities, is the mantra of the liberal arts major backed by parents they can call should a real financial emergency arise.
Marx offers the logical proof that to value your own self-realization inevitably involves valuing the self-realization of others.  It make sense, as the recession is teaching us, that if we assume only certain members of our society have the right to develop themselves through their work, then there’s no reason for those people not to be devalued themselves:
 So the only way in which human selves can have dignity, a value which is beyond price, a value of being worthwhile for their own sake, is through the universal or moral valuation of every human person as worthwhile for that person’s own sake. So if the deepest human need in an individual is for self-realization, that is, for the development of the value of the self-consciousness and self-choice as worthwhile for their own sake, then this deepest need is also the need for other persons as valuable for their own sake in their own self-consciousness and self-choice. For an individual cannot logically value oneself as beyond price unless one also values all other human selves in the same manner.
At work today I glanced at a kid’s essay who was writing about why he wants to go to college.  He didn’t mention he wants to go to college to make a ton of money, the way some kids talk about when they say they want to be doctors or lawyers.  Rather, he said he wanted to go to college so that he could use his work to pursue his hobbies, so that he could make money doing something he’s actually interested in.
I’ve thought often that the recession has made us all particularly cynical about the value of a college degree; the increased need to provide for ourselves materially has changed the focus of college from the development of ourselves and interests to the practicality of the way our investment of time and money will increase our projected income or make us more valuable in the labor market (which it certainly does).  But maybe the recession is actually forcing us to look at a college diploma more realistically. It won’t necessarily lead to a bigger income than being manager of a restaurant, especially depending on your major.  What college offers is an opportunity to develop the kind of wealth Marx is concerned with, the development of choice about what we do with our energies as workers, and the ability, as economists are now concerned about, to fulfill self-defined goals.

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A Radical Resolution: Self-Compassion

Buddhist Goddess of Compassion

I have this New Year’s resolution to embrace myself fully and with compassion.  In my yoga practice, at work, when I’m with my friends, even the thoughts I have in my head when I’m alone.  Complete and full acceptance.  For a very long time I’ve believed I needed a critical narrator to monitor my actions and thoughts.  It seemed like this voice was the most important factor motivating me to achieve goals I set, become a better version of myself, relate appropriately with others, even change the world. But that belief is going out with 2011. In its place, I’m hoping to cultivate a kinder attentiveness to myself that will not only improve my mental health, but help me feel more connected to others, passionate about my interests, even ambitious in my career plans.

A pitfall in attempting to be more relenting this year is critiquing the critic, so it’s important to remember my negative narrator has been developing for centuries as part of my human biology.  It’s also been passed down through my Western heritage. Neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson thinks our brains probably evolved to negatively appraise our environment because it was more adaptive, at one point, to be constantly on the lookout for predators and other potential threats rather than lackadaisical. And within my lifetime, I grew up in an educational system that evaluated me through my performance and position in a hierarchical grading system.  While I did learn to succeed within that kind of system, I also learned to determine my value as an individual by being “better” or “worse” than everyone around me.  This mode of evaluating people exists everywhere in our culture, from our mental health focus on self-esteem, to the debate between Democrat and Republican platforms about whether or not we should support people who don’t succeed in our competition driven economy. Indeed, studies have shown Americans lag behind their Buddhist contemporaries in places like Thailand for their ability to feel compassion for themselves. (Which is an adaptive thing to have even when you’re talking about success: more to follow below).

So now, with 25 years of self-monitoring and seeking approval from others to feel safe, I’m tired.  Rationally, it seems insane to evaluate human beings by dividing them up and comparing them to each other.  The usefulness of a type of intelligence, talent or skill varies in each new situation we find ourselves in and external circumstances fluctuate constantly.  The reality of change makes it impossible to feel consistent about our value as human beings if we’re determining our worth based on outperforming others. What a way to stay miserable and constantly judgmental of ourselves and other people!

Interestingly, the Dalai Lama, a leader within the spiritual tradition that appears correlated to higher levels of compassion among its acolytes, says happiness is our birthright, the point of our lives as human beings, in fact.  But, being the Westerner I am, it took me awhile to consider tossing out the competitive tendencies and critical judgments maintaining my melancholy.  Then I read a few scientific studies that confirmed being kind to oneself actually supports some of my success oriented values.  Dr. Kristin Neff at the University of Texas has created a self-compassion scale and has conducted numerous studies showing self-compassion is not only beneficial to our mental health, but is positively correlated to internalizing new information and mastering skills, feeling more consistently fulfilled and content, and feeling connected to others.

 She writes in an article posted on http://www.self-compassion.org:

Self-compassion involves being open to and aware of one’s own suffering, offering kindness and understanding towards oneself, desiring the self’s well-being, taking a nonjudgmental attitude towards one’s inadequacies and failures, and framing one’s own experience in light of the common human experience.

Self-compassion offers a consistent orientation towards ourselves not dependent on performance or external variables.  It isn’t positive thinking, which implies overlooking your negative qualities.  Rather, it involves a very honest appraisal of yourself, your actions, your thoughts, and it means tending to them knowing you’re not alone.  Neff points out in her articles there will always be someone “better” than you in whatever realm you pursue, so being too performance oriented is a pitfall for negative self-appraisal, can squelch our enjoyment of our activities, and ultimately, I would say, lead us to giving up on our dreams.  She advocates instead for a kind understanding of ourselves and wish for our own well-being that we can carry with us as we attempt new challenges.

Her conclusions remind me of an experience during a yoga class I took with Kelly Roadhouse one time at Dharma Yoga. We were doing cartwheels back and forth on our mats and of course everyone had a “good” and a “bad” side.  Kelly had us stop in the middle of our practice and squeeze our palms together.  With the squeeze, she said, gather up all your thoughts about how other people in the class are doing this better than you or how bad you feel that one side is better than the other. Release your palms, exhale and let the thoughts go. Now try your cartwheel.  Magically, my cartwheels were better.  When I fully accepted myself and with intention, asked my abstract, negative thoughts to leave, I actually performed better. It was as though by releasing some of the anxiety I was experiencing around the potential of failure, I could devote more of my attention to the skill I was trying to learn.  And giving up an attachment to the outcome of my cartwheels helped me keep trying when I felt awkward about my performance.

Neff has her own practices for increasing self-compassion.

Self-compassion practices not only support our success oriented goals, they increase our sense of ourselves as relational beings, which I think is a huge motivating factor for undertaking and supporting acts of social service.  Compassion exercises increase our understanding of human interconnection in two ways.  First, the techniques involve viewing ourselves as a friend would, or considering our common experiences and attributes we share with others.  Neff notes that when people perceivably fail at a goal or are suffering in some way, they may “overidentify” with that experience and “exaggerate the extent of their personal suffering.”  However, “The common humanity component of self-compassion… allows for the recognition of the related experiences of self and other, thus breaking the cycle of self-absorption,” she writes. So placing our own suffering in context can not only help us feel better, but it can increase our sense of empathy for others who are suffering, sometimes (or in the context of the world, often) even more than we are.

Second, we can learn to feel more compassionate for ourselves by tapping into the compassion we may more easily feel for others.  In an OnBeing interview, social activist and yoga teacher Sean Corn says she always offers her practice to a higher power or another person.”When you’re offering your practice as a gift, the movement becomes so fluid because if I fall out of a pose, I’m not going to swear…I’m not going to blame…I’m not going to push…or strain, because I’m practicing with the intention of offering and I don’t want to send that energy out.”

It’s easy to incorporate yoga into our culture’s obsession with perfecting the body, or our competetive impetus to be “better” than the person next to us.  However, Corn reminds us the asanas of a yoga practice are actually spiritual prostrations that can be offered up beyond our personal goals for achieving strength, flexibility or pride.  Whenever I imagine devoting my practice to the alleviation of another person’s suffering, my tendency to critique my body’s limitations or a sometimes wandering mind seems to dissolve instantaneously.  It’s as though by tapping into my feelings of love and acceptance for another person who may be suffering, I learn to attend to my body that way as well.  So a devotional offering of our actions is actually an act of enlightened self-interest.

Devoting our time and resources to practical acts of devotion, such as volunteering, donating and working on behalf of the marginalized, can also teach us about what Roshi Pat Enkyo O’hara calls the “absolute value” of any human being, regardless of circumstances. In the article “Include Everything,” she describes her Street Retreat, four days spent sleeping on the streets and eating in soup kitchens.  She concludes, “When anyone asks us to help them, what is the greatest gift we could give them at any given moment?…Wouldn’t it be to goad them to realize their own incomparable value and uniqueness? Isn’t that what we do when we offer the gift of our attention and love, when we include everything?”  For O’hara, helping others appreciate their unique traits and absolute worth is the ultimate act of social service.  Including everything, every action, every thought, every behavior, every person, as she says, is exactly what self-compassion practices help us learn to do, both for ourselves and those around us.

Having thousands of years of biological and cultural evolution working against my New Year’s resolution, I need scientifically, religiously and personally evaluated practices to increase my capacity for compassion. Ultimately, I think these practices can help us learn to act in ways that are creative rather than based on rigidity around how we or others might perform.  This openness to creativity can help us value the idiosyncrasies and unique offerings of ourselves and others in any given moment.  What a way to start a revolution.

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