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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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the way things are

Facebook

I quit facebook last year around July. Facebook is astoundingly hard to quit, not just because they hide the controls to do it and then don’t actually erase your data or delete your account so that you can, at any time, log in and everything is exactly the way it was when you left, but because even in a country like Japan which came relatively late to the facebook party, massive quantities of social life and business take place exclusively on facebook.

There are a few people in my community who do their primary marketing and public communications on facebook. I want to help them and be a part of their projects, but it is difficult for us to communicate because I refuse to use facebook and they refuse to use non-facebook. We end up only ever making plans when we run into each other at other events, or if one of us goes out of our way to chase the other down. This specific group of people frequently and unrelentingly try to get me back on facebook and usually the only way to shut them down is to remind them that I quit because it triggers my depression.

Not so long ago I was added to a group on facebook that I desperately want to be a part of. It is a closed group, joinable only by invitation, and it disseminates information about biking that I am most literally starving for. Suddenly I have a reason worth logging in for. I have browsed a few times in the last weeks, hungry for updates from this group, but still wary of the ill effects that facebook has on my mood, and it dawned on me exactly what it is about facebook that triggers such strong depressive states in me.

First, let’s all agree that baby photos, photos of your food, and political campaign messages are universally annoying. Beyond that, however, is a problem so very unique to facebook that I honestly do not know a solution, or even on whom the burden of solving it should lie. The problem is the following. In my life there are dreams I have carried for years that have not become accessible to me. Lately my focus is on bicycle related dreams, but there are many others. My friends are all people who share some sort of dream with me — you know, you make friends with people with similar interests — and so their facebook posts tend to be about the things that I dream about. This would be a good thing except that when I see my friends achieving what I have always wanted, but never figured out how to have, it shreds my confidence in my own abilities and qualities as a human. Furthermore, I often find myself wondering, “They know that this is something I’m desperately yearning for, and yet they don’t share it with me? Why not? Do they not care? Do they not want me as part of their life?” It doesn’t matter if I know that my reaction is more to the nature of facebook posts than to the people themselves, it still hurts. It hurts tremendously.

I hate facebook because it forces me to repeatedly see other people acquiring the things of my dreams and doing it without me. It hurts. I hate it. Naturally any non-insane person would know to stop doing something that hurts for sure, and so I tried to quit facebook, but my friends all want me back. What to do?

The most difficult aspect of the facebook dilemma is that I want my friends to achieve their dreams. I want my friends to be happy and I want them to share their happy with me. Moreover, if my friends acquire what I dream of, then I can ask them how to get those things myself, and as a result those things should become more accessible to me, too. Somehow, though, the latter never happens. Even though objectively I wish for my friends to go right on doing what they are doing, because they share on facebook and not to me in person, I always end up feeling left out, like I wasn’t invited to the party.

But what do you do? Do you tell your friends not to post about their successes? Or the fun they have? Of course not! Then facebook would ONLY be baby photos, food photos, (photos of edible  babies?) and political hate speach. That can NOT be an improvement by anyone’s standards.

My only solution has been to walk away from facebook. I feel more isolated because I literally cannot join my friends in activities that they only advertise through facebook, but at least I do not incessantly hurt myself when I am alone and feeling vulnerable. And I can use the excuse that I don’t use facebook to make my friends tell me about their lives in person. Hell, I can even go chase them down and say, “Hey! What’s going on in your life? What have you posted on facebook for everyone else to see that I would be interested in knowing?” And you know what? Most of the time, they tell me! It’s hard, I won’t deny it. It’s stressful to always have to be the one to initiate contact. For sure, though, it’s better than the alternative.

Still in Pain

First, I would like to apologize. That title is a pun. It’s not appropriate to make puns about being in pain because puns are funny (even if only in the “har har…groan” sense), and pain is not funny. So, sorry for the poor pain pun.*

Recently I had the opportunity to practice being still in my pain. I have mentioned in previous posts about the Numbness — that feeling of excrutiating pain in your soul that just cannot fully manifest itself into tears, and ends up filling your body with an overwhelming numbness that claws at your heart and dims your vision, making you feel like an empty shell in a world made of cardboard. The Numbness is a kind of existential pain, and like all pain, it eventually passes.

I say I had the opportunity to be still in my pain because being still in pain, particularly the numbing kind, allows us to fully experience it, and by experiencing it, allow it to pass. For most of us, the reflexive reaction to pain is to tense up and brace against it. This is true of pain in our bodies, but pain in our hearts can do the same. We also instinctively try to run from the source of the pain. Pain in our bodies is easier to deal with because our bodies know how to deal with pain: remove the source, place a protective scar over the wound, then repair the damage. Pain in our hearts is more difficult. Sometimes we don’t know what the source is, so we run around in panic. Sometimes we put a scar over the wound without removing the source, sealing it in and preventing healing. Sometimes we place a scar so thick, and then forget to remove it later, so that we are emotionally crippled. Stillness is the salve that cures the wound and removes the pain.

Because I was able to sit in stillness for three solid days, doing absolutely nothing to relieve my pain or my fear of more pain to come, I think I was finally able to understand where the pain was coming from. As I sat on my porch, sipping a bitter sweet drink of cool honey-vinegar, the shade over my eyes began to thin and brighten and I began to see finally that my pain was bubbling up from two sources.

First, there was the pain I was experiencing from forcing myself into a role that does not allow for complete expression of who I am. I speak here of my job as an economist. In the past, I thought I was feeling a sense of inadequacy (maybe I was?) that perhaps I am not suited to be an economist because I’m not good enough at it. I thought that my lack of publications was perhaps the result of some flaw in my character — I don’t put in enough hours at work, or my attention deficit disorder prevents me from being able to focus on the minute details of formatting and submitting my work to professional journals. I also felt at times that my pain was perhaps being caused by the incessant judgmental nature of academia. Until you have tenure, you are constantly being evaluated and your livelihood depends on you outperforming in some measurable sense most of your other peers. It is nearly impossible to focus on producing good quality work that answers truly important questions when doing so puts you at risk of going against the greater body of academics who hold the power to decide your future.

In the past, when I have felt this pain of inadequacy and uncertainty about my job, my reaction was to run from it by taking steps to secure my future position. This meant spending more time and more energy devoted to something that did not fulfill me and brought me more pain and more discontent. Even as my conscious mind was aware of the reality that there is nothing particularly special about being an economist that I should bleed my soul for it, I was at the same time unable to see that my actions were at all times reactions to the pain and fear of losing that identity. Put another way, I was stuck in my unhappiness because I kept attempting to escape it by looking backwards at where I came instead of forwards at where I wanted to go. I had no idea where I wanted to go and I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. Rough, no?

The second source of pain that became apparent to me was my relationship (or lack of relationship) with my friends. I have always fought to have good friends and I to this day do not understand why it doesn’t happen. In the past I have often blamed myself for not being proactive enough; I didn’t tell the boy that I liked him (Thunder, I like you HARD, like I want your penis to like my vagina: HARD! There. I said it. Are we friends now? Hmm…), so I’m the only one to blame if our relationship never deepens; No one ever invites me out to play with them, but if I don’t invite them out, then I’m equally to blame that we don’t hang out. Right? What I learned from my stillness is that it doesn’t matter. I am not in possession of the friendships that I crave, and this lack causes me pain.

It took three days of silent, still, intentional inaction to finally understand where my pain was coming from. These days were difficult for me. At every moment, even as the Numbness threatened to suffocate me, I forced myself to remain still. If my thoughts reached out to try and find solutions to my pain, I brought them back. I said to myself, “No, mind, you cannot find a solution to a problem that you do not truly understand. First, let us understand why you hurt so much.”

I feel much stronger and more resilient now than before I spent my time in Stillness. Ironically, my relationships to my friends have not changed, nor have I found a new career path to replace the one that I am sure I must leave. At the same time, however, I feel that a stillness has come to my soul. Where once it felt like a sea under storm, it is much closer now to a windswept lake.

I think that in our world we are told to take action too often. There is this idea that if you do nothing, then you are at fault for your lack of success. I think that this advice at one time used to be good, but has become warped in a society that lacks opportunity for stillness. When one’s default is stillness, then only action can bring new insight. Sometimes, even the switch from inaction to action is enough to focus our intentions and make clear to us what our hearts are craving. However, when we are constantly bombarded with new stimuli, new claims on our attention, new ways to numb the pain, then action can never be wholly separated from reaction and we cannot know if what we do is in fact what our unique being is directing us to do. When this is the place we find ourselves in, only inaction can be trusted to reflect our true desires.

As a result of my stillness and inaction, I have hope now that, at least for a short while, my actions are springing forth authentically from my own Self. I have hope that the steps I choose to take forward, even as they terrify me, are steps towards something that is better than what I am leaving behind.

To close my thoughts, I want to share with you a conversation I had with the manager of my favorite bike shop. In my frustration at their lack of support for my development as a cyclist, I went searching for a shop or a group that I could ride with. I found, on that fateful day that I decided to chase the boys in their team practice, a shop most appropriately named You Can. I ventured in and they enthusiastically offered to train me and support me as an athlete. The catch, however, is that I have to leave the Giant Store. This hurt, and it was not an easy choice to make, but I decided in the moment that I would do it. There is no other way for me to chase this dream. Out of politeness and respect for everything they have done for me, I went to talk to the manager at Giant. He was understanding. He’s a good guy. He’s very dear to me. As we were talking I said to him, “Lately, all I can think of, all I want to do is ride my bike. In the last year of my contract I should be working hard to bolster my resume for my impending job search, but instead I am riding, even taking shortcuts at work in order to have more time to ride. The reality is, no matter how successful I am at my job, I could win the Nobel Prize for all it matters to me, there is nothing that will comfort me if I don’t find out how fast, how far, how hard I can ride. There is simply nothing that I would regret more than not chasing this dream right here and right now.”

My friend was understanding, supportive even. “Well, it’s not a big deal. Somehow things will work out,” he said to me.

I have to trust that. I have to believe that somehow things will work out. There’s just no other way to do it.


*alliteration is also funny and not appropriate. I will not apologize for my alliteration.

Don’t Tell Me How It Is

Admittedly, I have a serious lag between the time my emotions happen and the time I realize what emotions are happening to me. The motivation for this post is an incident that occurred last week while I was waiting for my chance to sort things out with my friend.

A professor from my university, strange, extremely tall white guy with a white guy name that might as well be Bob, strolls into my bike shop. I’m startled at first, because to me my bike life and my work life are completely nonintersecting spheres of my existence. However, this guy, Bob, likes to bike and he’s done some serious touring in his life. Shisho was there, too. Since Shisho has drunk the majority (like, at least 90%) of the coffee that Bob procured for me through his other really white old guy contact who might actually be named Bob, I decided to introduce them.

First impression: Bob speaks awful Japanese and is zero self conscious about it. He doesn’t even seem to know his Japanese is incomprehensible and I had to translate his Japanese into Japanese for Shisho to be able to talk to him. Second impression: Bob does not do “in the moment.”

While we were talking, we got on the subject of maps and hidden mountain trails. Bob and I both know the security guard at my university who loves bicycles and knows all kinds of mountain bike-able trails hidden in the mountains west of where I live. I brought this guy up and Bob says to me, “Oh, YJsan is a serious biker, you know. He rode blah blah and such and thus and he has all these yaddieyaddie things.” I politely wait for him to finish before informing him that yes, I know, because I met him and if I didn’t know how much he liked bikes, how would I know about his secret map of hidden West Tokyo mountain trails?

Bob looked at me askew for a moment before attempting yet again to impress upon me how much YJsan is into bikes. At this point, I’m annoyed and ready to close down the conversation. I don’t want to be lectured on how much some security guard likes bikes! I know this! I met him! I want to talk about the subject at hand, which is the actual fucking place he rides those bikes that he loves so goddamn much!!

I arduously wrap up the conversation which was quickly turning into a soliloquy on Bob’s part while Shisho waits politely for my translation and I wait annoyedly for the moment at which Bob will shut up long enough so that I can translate.

On my way to work this morning I remembered this incident and it made my blood pressure rise. It reminded me of so many conversations I had with my aunt, ever since I was a little child, where she would tell me How I Am. She would tell me how I always had to do things for myself and how I would get a sparkle in my eye before causing trouble as a toddler and adolescent. I remember how, when I was older, she told me about how I used to dress in middle school. I went through a phase where I listened to punk and wore oversized men’s cargo shorts with equally oversized band T-shirts. She told me how when I was younger “I covered my body because I didn’t want anyone to see it.” When I heard this, somewhere around twenty years of age, I was like “What?! When the hell did that happen? I just saw an MTV sketch with a girl playing volleyball in men’s board shorts and a bikini top and thought it was hot and wanted to emulate it. Only, I couldn’t figure out what to substitute for the bikini top when not at the beach which is why I went with huge T-shirts. That’s it. End of story. Where do you get your crazy fucking ideas from??”

Now, ten years later, that incident still bothers me. It wasn’t an isolated event so much as a particularly clear example of something that had been eating at me for most of my life. You see, when I was younger I believed my aunt because I respected her and because she seemed to think highly of me. As I grew and matured, particularly as I went through my divorce and came out again as a more authentic human being, I became annoyed at her increasingly inaccurate assessments of my personality. It was annoying not just because she was wrong, but because she insisted that I was wrong about me! Are you shitting me? No one in the whole goddamn world knows better who I am (or who anyone is) than the person whose identity is in question, which in this case is ME!

It’s been nearly six months since my aunt and I had our falling out. She tried to accuse me of being inconsiderate of her feelings, of insulting her and of doing some other stuff that I honestly can’t understand or attach to any particular interaction of ours. When we first tried to talk about it I told her that she had made me feel like a subject of ridicule because of who I am and the life I choose to lead. She said a funny thing to me. She said, “I think it’s telling that you only talk about yourself in your e-mail.” At which point I gave up on my usual tactic of communication and empathy and told her the cold hard truth. “Auntie,” I said, “If you want me to talk about someone’s feelings other than my own, then I can only guess at them because one can really only ever know one’s own experience. So since you want me to say it for you, I’ll say it. You’re reeling because you got punched in the face with the reality that your impression of me has been wrong for over a solid decade and I’ve had it with you telling me how I am. I refused to bow down to your superior assessment of The Way Things Are and you can’t handle it because it means that you, too, have to grow the fuck up.”

I hate when people try to tell me How Things Are. I hate it because I truly believe that we can never know more than our own personal experience, and because when people try to tell me how things are, they are implying that I am not intelligent enough to have figured it out for myself. I think that’s incredibly disrespectful. I do not even do this to my students who, by all measures of objectively reality, really can’t possibly know more than I do. So don’t tell me how it is. Instead, tell me what you see, tell me what you feel, tell me what troubles you and what doesn’t make sense about the facts you have collected. But don’t tell me how it is. Inevitably you are going to off topic at best, and dead wrong at worst.

So Many Tears

These days I cry all the time. Yesterday I was telling a friend that I like to just sit and watch my ferrets eat. Just remembering the contented sounds of munching and crunching, and imagining my girl’s face as she squints her eyes to chew, with little crumbs spilling out of her mouth, made me well up. Today I listened to a sermon by my friend Rev Bev and she likened the need that we have to play and to experience pleasure to the call of the wild geese. Lying on my living room floor, looking out the window at a clear morning sky, I could see the geese and hear their call and they were calling me to get up and to go outside into the wild where I can be free and find life. I’m streaming now even as I type.

Why do the tears come so readily these days? I feel as if they’re always there just under the surface waiting to gush out at any moment. When I cry my feeling is always the same. There is a world. There is life. It’s so close I can feel it in my skin. My stomach screams and my chest fortifies itself to keep the scream inside me for fear it rips the skin of my bones on its way out. When I cry, it’s always because the seal that keeps me in and the world out is growing thinner and tiny holes are melting their way through to the outside. I cry because I desperately want to leave this prison that I have grown up in but I can’t find the knob on the door. Of course the reason that I can’t find the knob is because I’m not ready to. I’m afraid to open the door to freedom because I’m afraid it might kill me.

My words are metaphoric, but in fact they are also written with deadly sincerity. The trap that binds me is the invisible and ubiquitous blind of civilization. It binds me with rules of success, rules of propriety, rules of separation, hard work and lovelessness. To break free of these binds would be to rid one’s self of the need to follow the rules. Some of these rules are enforced with violence. If I love the wrong person I may be incarcerated, the invisible bounds of civilization replaced with the very solid bounds of a cell. If I work towards the wrong cause, not being successful enough by the measure of money, then everything I own can be taken away from me by force. In a world where even the sky and the water that falls from it are owned by someone, to lose everything one owns is to be truly trapped. It could kill me to be separated from nature. I could suffocate from concrete.

I am trapped between two worlds. My heart fully inhabits a world of abundance, of the awesome power of thunderstorms and howling wolves, of the thrill of sex so deep our bodies melt into the universe, mix, and return to us with little concern for whether all the bits go back to their original owners, of the peaceful crunching of tiny jaws on tiny kibbles… My heart has left my mind behind to live in this beautiful world and my mind reels from the pain of separation. My mind resides in the plane of utility bills and income tax, resumes, employment and visa applications. My mind still believes that it has to do something, but without my heart it can only answer the how, not the what.

I cry because in these tiny moments my eyes suddenly see clearly and my mind understands that the world it lives in is not the world of my heart. It sees where it needs to go and the contrast between the piercing beauty of that bright and clear vision and the faded drudgery of the world it has grown accustomed to stings. In these moments I’m torn in a different direction. The longing is so sincere and only in these moments do I understand it well enough to rejoice in the vision and mourn its absence from my daily life. I cry from the pain, but it also purifies me. Each time the tears come I feel my eyes see a little more clearly, my heart speaks a little more loudly and my mind seems to find just a little more direction. Perhaps one day the call will be too strong to ignore. Perhaps the fear of every threat that civilization can throw at me will suddenly lose its power to move me. Perhaps on this day the geese will fly overhead and I’ll hear them and finally step outside into the sun to follow them over the horizon.

On the Intentionality of Life Without Social Media

Many people have commented on how social media, specifically facebook, erodes social relationships. When I quit facebook three weeks ago, I learned this same lesson from a slightly different angle. Websites that allow “follows” and “likes” have a way of encouraging a sort of vomiting of information. The personal and the public all get blended together and spewed forth to the anonymized mass of followers, and the result is that we not only lose our sense of what is appropriate to share and what is not, but we also lose touch with the people we are sharing with.

I recently spent a lovely day playing in the snow with some new friends I made. A freak storm shut the city down, so instead of working we all rather dicked around in the shop, or else went outside to throw snow at each other. When I came home I was exploding with happy and I desperately wanted to tell someone. In my facebook days, I would have made a post. I would have then tagged the guys at the shop, making sure to include the one’s I meant as well as the ones who were more peripheral in order to hide the fact that I find some of them rather attractive. My friends who were not present would [like] the post because it would be a happy subject and they would assume it was an indicator that all is well in my life. The friends tagged would [like] the post because it would be impolite not to. And everyone in my network would know I wanted everyone to know my feelings.

However, without an online social presence, I only had the option to send the message directly to the people in question, or else not send it at all. I had one and a half out of three of the e-mail addresses I needed to send personal messages. So I sent a simple update along the lines of “Your shop rocks!” to the ones I had, and then I waited. Hours later I have not heard a response. Without facebook, there are no others observing whether or not that response is sent. It is a private communication between me and another person which holds the additional weight that it was intentionally sent by me to the recipient. This is a very different kind of message than a (semi) public online post.

Being intentional, personal, and direct about our communication with others is taking a gamble when a sure thing is available. By being direct I risk rejection, but I also risk building a stronger and more genuine relationship. On the other hand, a post on a website guarantees me a certain level of validation, but it is highly circumscribed. Many people, myself included, are afraid to build new relationships because each new connection requires exposure and risk. However, a human relationship is only as strong and genuine as the willingness of each participant to expose him or herself. In the end we all want acceptance, but if we try to engineer acceptance, such as through impersonal websites, then the acceptance we achieve is never of our whole selves, but only of the select facet we choose to expose. Relationships built this way will leave you feeling perpetually on guard, a perpetual outsider. Why? Because until you go all in, you’ll never be all in.

Woman — the Ultimate in Unvalued

Years ago as a teenager in the Christian Church, not so long after puberty struck, I asked my community, “How do I know that God loves women as much as he loves men?” The answers I received were profoundly depressing:

  • God gave a woman the honor of giving birth to his son.
  • Women are the more beautiful sex.
  • Women are naturally more pure than men.

The first response said to me that the value in a woman is entirely contained within her uterus. The second told me that women are not useful for anything. The third told me that if I sinned, more specifically if I were sexually active, then I was more to blame than a man because my nature made me naturally less susceptible to temptation. What terrible messages to send to a confused and lonely teenager!

Today, almost twenty years later, the messages I receive about womanhood are no less depressing. Consider this video documentary on “People with questionable genders.”

Where are the women here? They are absent. They are hidden. They exist like ghosts, only as references to give context to another problem that some men face: gender dysmorphia. According to this documentary, only men are faced with the difficulty of living in a society that rejects them and only men are given the choice to live false lives or to actualize themselves.

It is not politically correct to criticize transsexuals. However, it seems to me rather naive to say that a transwoman and born woman are the same. The former was born into a life of privilege and chose to reject it. The latter was never given the choice. It is rather similar to comparing a monk and a beggar. The former chooses his poverty in exchange for actualization of himself. The latter, on the other hand,  has no flag of moral victory to wave in the face of his enemies.

Once, years ago, I was discussing with a male acquaintance of mine. He bemoaned the freedom that women had to dress as men without repercussion, but that men were considered gay or somehow deficient in their masculinity if they did so. Clearly, I said to him, this difference arises from the fact that a woman is considered an inferior being. It is natural for her to want to emulate masculinity whereas a man who rejects his gender has no justification and therefore deserves the ridicule. Our philosophical discussion ended there. Most men are uncomfortable when their privilege is pointed out to them.

 

 

Perspective

Living in Japan has taught me many things. The most difficult lesson I am having at the moment is understanding how Japanese people can work six to seven days a week for weeks on end, and know the exact number of holidays they’ve taken year to date at any day of the year. I have two acquaintances here with whom I have discussed this point. Both were quite enlightening.

One man works for an interior renovation company as a project manager. He can easily work for three weeks without a day off, and they are mostly ten hour days. I still do not understand how this is possible. When, for example, does a person on this schedule do their laundry? This is in a country where letting your laundry pile up for more than two days is considered bad hygiene, and dryers are luxury items. When we met I learned that he loves surfing and used to live near the beach before moving for his job. His dream is to become employed by a boutique sports wear shop on the shore where he can surf every morning for an hour or two before work. To me, this sounds like a small dream, but to him it is immeasurable personal freedom.

Since we met he told me he has started to rethink his life and his priorities. He wants this job, but he does not know how to acquire it. Japanese are not particularly good at controlling their own destinies. Generally, they are a very passive people. Recently he lamented to me that he would like to quit his current job, but there are no other available options to go to. I said to him, “why don’t you just take a few ‘sick’ days without quitting?” I figured if he gets caught, he wanted to quit anyway and maybe he’ll get some unemployment or something. I feel like this was a very American suggestion. “Ah! What an idea? I never thought of that,” he says to me.  “You really gave me a new perspective!”

The second man works for a local branch of a large sports equipment company (what can I say? I like sports). He is an hourly employee, which is considered “part time” in Japan. The shop closes at seven in the evening and one night I received a message from him “Done for the day!” It was 10:30 pm. He gets one day off per week and on that day he works part time as a mechanic. I said he works too much. He said I work too little. I told him the French consider a 35-hour work week to be excessive. He said Japan is not a country where you can live working less. At this last point, my mind started spinning.

As an economist I am keenly aware of the role of boundaries in our lives. Sometimes the boundary is money, as in we have to meet our budget or else we can’t pay off our mortgage. Sometimes the boundary is very personal and very rigid, like our innate attention span. Sometimes the boundary is imposed upon us by organizations that seem more mechanical than human, like the boundary between on-the-clock and off-the-clock. Boundaries can be comforting, such as when we set a boundary for how much risk we are willing to tolerate in our lives, and then stay safely inside it. But they can also be suffocating, such as when the boss thinks that an acceptable boundary between work and personal life is having access to your social media profile, e-mail and cell phone number, but promising not to misuse them. Boundaries can also control our ability to make good decisions by changing the context of the choices that we make. Japan, I argue, has a problem with boundaries.

As a member of the modern world with access to the internet, you have undoubtedly been told that the wealth available to the average citizen of the United States is greater than that of King Louis XIV, or some other similar claim of modern affluence. Undoubtedly you were told this by some charitable organization hoping for just two dollars a month to save some children from starving, or else you were told by some authority figure who wanted to impress upon you the need to work more and play less. Perhaps when you heard this claim, you thought to yourself, “if I am so rich, then why is my life so difficult?” Indeed, this is a difficult question to answer unless you are accustomed to thinking about how boundaries influence our welfare.

Let us take a moment to think back. Decades, indeed centuries ago, when the sun went down the world went to sleep. Even the lowliest peasant on a Midieval fief was sent home at the end of the day because the fuel to light the fields was simply not worth the expense. Come industrialization, not only did we have the ability to work long, grueling hours, but we also had the technology to make it profitable. From industrialization we moved to telecommunications. Now, even when the work day ended, our bosses could still find us in our homes and return us to work. From telecommunications we went to the current situation of live feeds and mobile computers so light and small that they fit in our pocket, and which are more powerful than the clunky desktop pieces we shared among an entire family barely twenty years ago. From the perspective of the economy, this is a massive increase in productive capacity and it is part of the reason why we are so affluent today. However, all this technology has created a difficult situation for employer and employee relationships.

Years ago, in fact only one generation ago, when you left the job, you stayed off duty until your shift started the next day. It was simply too difficult or else too cost ineffective for your boss to expect you to be productive in any capacity when you were not physically on site. Even jobs that relied on computers (or typewriters, as it were) stayed in the office since many people did not own the necessary equipment to take their work home with them. This placed a boundary on the daily productive capacity of each employee, which in turn restricted overall profits as well as individual wages. Today, however, the ability to take work home with us has reached through to almost every kind of job. Today, if we want to stop working, we have to provide a reason to stop where before the reason was clear: that it’s simply impossible to work more.

The technology that has allowed us to choose when and where we work has essentially created a conflict between employer and employee that clearly favors the employer. Now every employee must appeal for the privilege to stop working. If it is possible to work, why wouldn’t you? seems to be the logic that every company employs. Unfortunately because the power is never balanced between boss and worker, the worker loses ground. It is impossible to say to one’s boss “I simply don’t want to work this much,” without risking one’s job. The truth is that over time, technology has eroded the natural boundary between work and personal life and the individual is simply not equipped socially to reinstate it.

My friends do not work six to eight days a week because Japan is a country where it is impossible to live working less than six days a week. In fact Japan is a country where it is possible to live working every waking hour, and even some sleeping hours. That’s why my friend’s lives are so difficult. In Japan it is even more difficult to assert yourself to your superiors than it is in the western world. This is because Japan has a very well established social hierarchy and sense of obligation. The employer should take care of his employees’ every physical needs right up to subsidizing their rent and work meals, and in return the employees must dedicate their lives to their employers. It is almost as if the Samurai live on with karoshi (literally “death by over work”) replacing seppuku as the means of preserving honor.

Japan is not the only country that is slowly destroying its people through over work. Americans are well on their way there, too. To see this we need only look at the billions of dollars wasted on medicating chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and depression. Unfortunately this outcome is inevitable. The powerful will always take advantage of the weak, and there is an inherent power imbalance in our market system. All hope is not lost, however. We may not be able to control the infrastructure of our society, or be able to tell our bosses that they are crossing the line, but we can appreciate each other on a personal level. We can love our friends and celebrate their lives — lives lived fully, and completely, with work and with play and with love and with responsibility. In doing so we will lessen the moral burden of leaving an organization that abuses us. If we know we have the support of our friends in making decisions that improve our lives holistically, then even if it means risking our jobs, we can turn around and assert our own personal boundaries on the people who seek to use us up for their profits.

It may never happen that, as a society, our right to happiness and leisure is officially recognized. Even if we do everything in our power to protect our happiness and the happiness of those we love, it may always be true that the weaker in spirit will not be protected and will further contribute to a system that consumes where it should be providing. However, even if our numbers are too small to “make a difference,” there is still enough affluence in our society that even if we were to live perpetually at the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, we would still have enough to live and live happily if only we could remember to keep that happiness precious.

In the end, I suppose it is all about perspective. We have a choice between selling our souls for affluence, or building affluence out of pure spirit. It can be done. It’s scary, though. We are not taught to be alive or to be happy and many of us simply assume that if we just do the “right” things happiness will fall on us. But, no. You have to make your happy. If you take the perspective that the world exists as resources to build happiness, as compared to the perspective of you exist to “succeed” and are only entitled to whatever happiness you can fit into the margins of that success, then you will find that happiness. As an economist I am meant to study the world as it operates in the presence of scarcity, but I don’t think we live with scarcity. I think we live with abundance, if only we were brave enough to reach out and take it.

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