Why is one’s sense of self so often tied to the job?
By a job I mean something you do for money. A profession to me is a job that requires a specific degree or knowledge. A career is a series of jobs in the same field. A vocation implies an elucidated mission.
I’m standing at the back of my twenties and I’m wishing that the US educational system had impressed this upon my young receptive psyche: that every individual needs to become something of his own creation and not just a tool of the market. I wish the University Career Center had spent less time on pamphlets about the right dress code for an interview, fashioning the student in the image of people he’s yet to meet. I wish higher education were about the importance of a vocation that responds to student’s needs and aspirations.
We are prepared for acceptance, obedience and gratitude. We are not prepared to question, dissent, or defend in our own interest.
I was thinking about all of this when I found Erich Fromm’s Fear of Freedom.
Published in 1941 during the World War II, the book analyzes the modern man’s ambivalence toward personal freedom and its political and social ramifications.
The Curse or a Blessing in Disguise
The first interesting note in this book was the author’s conception of freedom.
Fromm argues that until the end of the Middle Ages man did not conceive of himself as an individual. Realizing that he was a unique entity made him feel solitary and vulnerable because it also meant realizing that he was separate from his environment, his land, his family.
Ideally the liberated man will become self-sufficient and find a new connection to the world – one that is not based on his dependency for identity but on a love, an appreciation.
Fromm co-ops Genesis for his explanation. In the Garden of Eden man is without sin and without reflection and completely happy in the protection of God. When he becomes aware of himself, he has sinned. He loses God’s protection. He is alone. Now he is able to judge and make mistakes and thrive and lose and win. The full man is the man who acknowledges his humanity with its virtues and defects, its strenghts and limitations.
The free man, confident in his own efforts, found an outlet in the growth of commerce in the late Middle Ages. He could be free from certain restrictions – familial and economic. Still, the level of wealth a person desired was that of his current class. Few people thought of moving up the social ladder.
Then, commerce grew, the gap between the laborer and the monopolist merchant widened. Moving up the social latter became a necessity. It’s either you step up or someone will step on you. A charming little invention called the watch aggravated the laborer’s plight.
The business owner now measured the pace of production. The laborer became a pedal. Push him harder and you will go faster. The worker who “wasted” time thus wasted the employer’s money. The Cult of Productivity was born.
The Rat Race, The Ethics of Productivity
Meanwhile another revolution was boiling in the church.
Fromm argues that the Protestant Reformation transformed the worker. It simultaneously made him feel impotent and enthusiastic. He was told that he will never reach the Promised Land by himself. He must “humiliate” himself before God. Yet, he was also told that his sinful actions can land him in even more trouble (Martin Luther) or they may be a sign of greater troubles to come in Hell (John Calvin).
The believer was filled with a sense of impotence and enthusiasm to prove himself worthy.
Being able to work long and hard became a sign that one was among the righteous. Today we are all familiar with the Protestant work ethic. Idle hands are the devil’s tools.
But this concept has started to fray. As science advances and philosophy persists the possibility of eternal salvation seems more like a riddle. While many people are still religious, others admit that they are not sure. Working for one’s eventual salvation seems less logical.
But the grind of the market has created a situation where more and more of us are day laborers (not owners or share holders). Since our livelihoods depend on the market and there is no afterlife (that we can confirm), what should we work for?
Many just strive to get the best living they can here and now. The desire to succeed materially is no longer a symbol of fortune to come; it is all there is to get.
And, some people have decided to get as much of it as possible. They throw themselves into a tailspin of activity.
As work becomes increasingly important in our lives, we judge others based on what they do.
Public Opinion, the Golden Calf
The man who works hard only wants to work harder. He cannot seem to find satisfaction in all the things he owns because what he really wants is connection.
There is nothing more like that feeling in real life than widespread public appraisal. And so, public opinion is the Golden Calf of our time.
Public opinion now works in tandem with the market.
The market seeks to fashion the individual into the perfect gadget, the perfect worker. The worker wants to be perfect so that he will secure his daily bread and a few thumbs up from the crowd.
The desire to be a good worker/make good money and feel universally loved has led us to a stage where people confuse work with worker, reputation with identity. You are no longer you. You are what you do and what people say about you.
Soon that man is not only selling his product or service. He is selling himself, his personality.
This loss of distinction between the work and the worker seems to have affected education. Often we do not learn; we are informed.
are not challenged to think and question, assert and defend; we’re encouraged to network. Some have lost the respect for actual skill and now they are only interested in “what they said.”
Things like leisure and self-cultivation become frivolous. Why rest? You can’t sell your rest, can you? Why exert yourself to understand things like justice, love, and compassion unless you can sell them?
Although work may be our means of connection with others, how we engage in work makes all the difference between a healthy man and a man who has health insurance. It’s good to remember that what we are and what we do are not the same or of the same value.
We ought to teach young people that they are valuable as humans, without qualifying. (I’m a relatively young person and I’m still learning this.) And then we must teach them that they have a power. That power is human industry/work.
Recognizing that one has that power and the power hasn’t got him (you possess, you are not possessed) also means recognizing the responsibility to decide what to do with it. That decision results in a vocation.
What better way to motivate ourselves to work than walking down the path towards what we each feel we need to do?
“Here I am and this is what I want to see in the world. What shall I do to make that come true?” A vocation is a mission.