I took last month off blogging, for the most part, but it was a very intellectually-active month for me. I stopped blogging for the better part of the month because I found myself going through the ultimate cliche: the midlife crisis. As one who seldom does things the same way as everyone else, no one was more surprised that I would do something quite so conventional as have a midlife crisis as me. It, frankly, knocked me off my game for a while and required me to work through some things. But, as I come out of it, I feel like I want to share some of the thoughts I had because my perspective is - I am told - not a common one and I think it is worth sharing.
I grew up living on the outskirts of a fairly affluent area. I lived with my father (and, for most of my childhood: brother, stepmother, and stepbrother), who worked for the government and had the foresight to move just inside the boundaries that kept me at one of the nation's best public schools, yet in a house he could afford. I spent most of my youth - from fifth grade onward - doing my own thing: I immersed myself in science fiction books, wrote extensively, and spending time with only one or two friends outside school hours. For sports: I ran. I was a distance runner and I was content to either run on my own or with two upperclasswomen who seemed to understand me and accept my innate curiosity and converse with me accordingly.
I was taught that I could be an agent of effective change and that I had a responsibility to work to better the world around me. My peers were generally wealthier and many went on to Ivy League Universities and careers that allow them to maintain or grow their family's wealth and influence in the world. Amid geniuses, athletes and people clearly aspiring for a straight and narrow, easy-to-define trajectory, I was generally overlooked and forgotten. Imagine an environment breeding stockbrokers, lawyers and mathematical geniuses: I knew from ninth grade onward that I wanted to be a writer and an artist.
I went to college, became a writer, honed my artistic talent . . . and was thrown into a very business-oriented world.
The Roots Of My Existential Crisis
So, now I am in my late 30s and I live with my wife in an apartment in the virtual middle of nowhere. And we're happy getting by with one another, but we oscillate wildly between poverty and adequacy. I write and run my own small business and we take care of our animals.
Throughout my life, I have been politically active. As one without money, I am particularly attuned to economic issues. As I wrote more and more about economic and political issues, I ran into two big problems: self-censorship and a fundamental personal/political schism.
The self-censorship was very easy for me to define. Two years ago, I wrote a script for a film. It's called Anticapitalist and it is the model for our next Civil Rights Movement. The premise is that our next Civil Rights Movement will seek to free Americans from economic enslavement. I put my heart and a ton of my best lines into the script and it is a work that continues to become more commercially viable with each passing day. But, alas, I don't have an agent and trying to get the script in front of any Hollywood Liberal with even a modicum of interest or influence has been a Herculean task. So, for two years, I've stayed silent on a number of things in order to not spoil my own film.
And then came the personal/political schism. The more I wrote about economic issues, the more I ran into a conceptual problem with the way other people exert influence over my life. Lately, there have been a number of corrupt businesses that hide abysmal practices under the guise of "protecting liberty." Businesses like Hobby Lobby want to be known as a "Christian business." While they cannot literally ask potential employees about their faith (at least, not legally), they speak in Evangelical code (it exists and twenty-five years of deciphering the doublespeak have been a mix of horrifying and enlightening) and the executives of the company use their authority to impose their Evangelical views on their employees (not all Christians object to birth control, for example, but Hobby Lobby went to the Supreme Court to fight for their right to not have to pay for their employees' contraception as part of their health care package). So, the refrain that I kept singing in reaction to such draconian policies by Big Business enterprises was: "If you want to do business in America, these are the rules you have to follow." Want to run a small business as a bigot? It's not legal because every American has the Right to equal service. In other words, individuals absolutely have the right to their bigoted self-expression; that right ends when they step out into society and become a legal business entity. The rules of America are - or once were - that simple. Businesses are not people: a business cannot legally enslave or discriminate against other people or groups. That is the social covenant that every individual who goes into business enters into. That's political and economic and the moment the Supreme Court outlawed Jim Crow Laws that forced businesses to take down signs limiting who could eat at a particular establishment, it has been the law of the land.
The Existential Crisis
So then it hit me: I have an answer to a large number of economic and political issues which is simple and direct. Businesses cannot discriminate because that is the social covenant they entered into - by choice. On a personal level, though, I had a full understanding that I was born into a social covenant that I never agreed to. My life, my existence, was something that was forced upon me. I am Pro Choice and the choice that allows me to truly, definitively, take control of my life is illegal. I exist as part of a social covenant based upon where I was born (the United States in the latter quarter of the 20th Century). That social covenant is simple:
Make money or die.
Think about that for just a moment. If I were to take control of my life and attempt to kill myself, I either need to get it right or else an ambitious District Attorney could prosecute me for attempted suicide (suicide is a felony in many places in the U.S. and attempting it can be used as just cause to question the mental health of the person attempting it). Were I to fail, I could be hospitalized . . . which would rack up bills. So, that leaves suicide by starving to death, which is a pretty horrifying and prolonged way to die.
If I want to live, though, I must make money. How has it taken me so many years of life to recognize just how perverse that is? We live in the most economically prosperous nation in the history of the Earth and if I don't feel like interacting with people around me, I will starve to death and die. I worked for the United States Census Bureau and discovered that in virtually every rural area in the United States, there are abandoned houses that are slowly falling into disrepair. But if I don't want to waste my life making money for companies that increase the wealth of select individuals who have wealth to invest in them . . . I cannot legally occupy any of that abandoned land.
I recognize that it is very easy to read those lines and respond with a gruff: "Everyone has to work" or "What a ridiculous premise! What a whiner; he doesn't want to get a job and he's complaining about life itself!"
But that's the thing: this is not life itself. Life is not, inherently, involved with making money. There is no biological process that requires us to make money. There are biological processes that necessitate consumption of food and protection from the elements (food and shelter). But those are denied to our citizens because all aspects of our society are subservient to our capitalist economic institutions.
I never agreed to those terms.
I was born into this world. I developed into an intelligent, creative individual and I never once was even asked to consent to the institutions that control my life. Think about that: there was never a moment I - or you - was asked, "will you take a job to feed, clothe, and shelter yourself or die?" There is no social contract here: it's make money or die. With a social contract, one could say "I'll make money, but if I'm going to waste my life working for you and your money, it absolutely has to be enough to meet all of my needs."
Who is perverse now: the one who acknowledges that there is something horribly wrong living a life so devoid of consent and control or the one who blindly defends that status quo?
The beautiful thing is that I can easily trace what threw me over. My father is an aging Baby Boomer and he remains politically active. One of his friends posted a photograph of an event for one of his Progressive groups. I noted that for a Progressive organization, there was a distinct lack of young people at the event photographed. I made the comment that for the group's next event, perhaps they should make sure each member brought two younger people to the event. I'm big on the idea that one of the important ways the Left needs to change and evolve strategically is to foster the next generation of liberals in a way they have not, historically, done (say what you will about Evangelicals and their viewpoints; they know how to reproduce to grow a movement over multiple generations!).
One of the members of the progressive group responded to my constructive comment with a snarky retort. Without a direct quote: the gist of the response was that the event pictured was the reward to themselves for their activism. These were the Boomers who cut their hair, got a job and kept fighting (all of that was explicitly referenced in his comment). The snarky aspect within me thought, "they had jobs with pensions and could afford a nice house in the suburbs and a party that no young person today could ever afford." But I like to keep things positive . . . and failing that, constructive.
The Liberal Activists of yesterday cut their hair and took jobs and claimed to be activists while Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and Dick Cheney absolutely destroyed the U.S. government and society. Through the efforts of the Reactionary Right, business interests rose up, the E.R.A. and other Civil Rights measures were defeated, and the government was so weakened that social programs were gutted in favor of the interests of Big Business. There is a cause and effect and you know who sees it? A socially conscious individual who was raised among political activists and rising businesspeople who was creative and did not fit in.
For a moment, I saw yet another World That Could Have Been. The Counterculture Movement had a number of problems. Amid standing up for Civil Rights, Equality, and individual liberty and fighting against an unconscionable military action, there was sex without consequences (which seldom worked out as well as people wanted to believe and led to the rise of some pretty nasty STD vectors) and drug culture; the Counterculture Movement was split between incredible social responsibility and ethics and a disappointing lack of personal responsibility.
A large component of what messed me up for the last month was that I could see that World That Could Have Been. The prowar movement fell apart because the American people turned against it; the Counterculture Movement had enough sway over the mainstream that they achieved one of their main, stated goals. But then, they conformed and got a responsible job. Imagine what would have happened if they didn't let employers dictate how they had to look. It seems like such a little thing, but it was one of history's turning points. Seriously. Business made a demand that allowed them to exert their influence over the very bodies of people who were not even working for them yet! With their success, the Reactionary Right began to realize it would undo the gains made by the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Together, business interests and the Evangelical Christian movement gutted women's rights, stunted the Gay Rights Movement, and exerted more and more control over the bodies and health of employees and their families . . . because they knew they could get away with it.
The hippies cut their hair to get jobs. Business interests forced those hippies to look a certain way to make money to survive. If the hippies held out, what would have happened? Those businesses would have hired them, hair and all. There was a labor shortage and the United States was on the cusp of one of the most significant economic booms in the history of capitalism. If the hippies had held out, employers would have had the choice to employ the hippies regardless of their appearance or import workers from other countries to do the jobs that Americans were willing to do. Business could have relented, business should have relented.
[The corollary for this comes within the last fifteen years. In the 90s piercings became more mainstream and now tattoos are similarly mainstream. I worked, for a time, at a Treasury Department call center with several well-tattooed women who were smart and efficient and now have exceptionally well-paying jobs. Professional businesses that require highly trained individuals do not focus on appearance in an "apply online" world and an economy filled with job openings. The Boomers who are retiring now, the ones who claimed to keep the fight going after they surrendered control of their person for those pensions, are being replaced by people with tattoos and piercings in evident places. And those businesses are surviving.]
The World That Could Have Been is one where businesses had a need for employees and they said, "cut your hair, you filthy hippie!" and the hippie said, "I'm great for this job, but I love my hair and your business where I'll work for no more than 40 hours a week is not going to dominate how I appear the other 128 hours a week!" And after a few lean weeks of trying to find qualified employees, businesses would say "we need you, come to work for us." And there Big Business en masse would realize that they could not exert that kind of control over people. Business would not dominate individuals; people would retain their control over business interests. People are people, businesses are not people; that is a much harder argument to make when the people running businesses create authoritarian edicts that force individuals to change so much of their person.
What happened in the United States was the employers got their way and those at the top of Big Businesses realized that they could exert more and more control over workers and their families and society at large. Want maternity leave? Not on our dime! Don't want a child? We won't hire anyone to assume the responsibilities left by the person on maternity leave; we'll dump their workload on you! We're having a mixer for employees and their families . . . LGBT employees, don't you dare bring your spouse! Minor drug possession charge ten years ago? Not for our company where you'll simply be stocking shelves! Thinking of adopting? We'll vouch that you have steady employment unless you're thinking of getting a kid from that country!
This one subculture capitulation led to an important transition in business; historically, post-Depression, employees were seen as an asset and when people surrendered their sovereignty of their bodies for employment that began a devaluing of the employees. In the 1980s, Big Business made a powerful transition that made them redefine their employees as a financial liability (an expense) instead of an asset. Over the course of my lifetime, I have watched that transition as Big Business exerts massive amounts of influence and utilizes ridiculous amounts of capital to gut social programs, destroy benefits and fight living wages for employees.
It's easy to see how I got mired for a month.
At the other end of my existential crisis was just sadness. Opposite the high-minded revelation that society is entirely structured in a way that my very survival is dictated without my consent was the grounded, rational, probably obvious idea that I might not "make it" in my chosen field. I've spent years trying to get anyone in The Industry to stop long enough to even hear my ideas. While my wife works hard to point out examples of midlife success (it turns out John Mahoney got into acting when he was around my age and following Frasier he has almost exclusively taken theater projects that he is passionate about - as opposed to taking "jobs!"), it has been hard for me to maintain the belief that I could achieve mainstream success later in life. It's incredibly frustrating to watch documentaries of people who are in The Industry, who believe art can be used to shape and define public opinion and have an effect on the world, but not be able to even pitch to them. I'm not going to be in the same room with Anne Hathaway where I'll be able to talk to her about Anticapitalist and there won't be a moment where I can pass the script for it off to Richard Schiff and he'll read it and say, "I know some people who would love to help get this made." So, I might be the right person at the right time with the right idea . . . but I'm not the one who knows anyone. I'm not within six degrees of separation from anyone who would care to produce my films. That's a rough headspace to be in and it doesn't benefit from the self-censorship of trying not to spoil one of my best, finished, works.
I've spent the month wrestling with how to live in a world where I have to make money or die. My amazing wife helped me through a big portion of this. I've never been motivated by profit and she fell in love with me knowing that. She pointed out that it is ridiculous to live a life outside of society and its expectations, but still judge oneself by those standards. That's the key to so much.
I was raised to succeed; all my training and education poorly prepared me for failure. As an artist living in a business-motivated world, I fail a lot . . . by the standards of business.
I have written seven complete novels (two published), hundreds of poems, dozens and dozens of short stories, multiple film scripts (not just treatments, ready-to-shoot scripts!), a hundred episode television series (first season of scripts is ready to shoot!) and thousands of product reviews. I have had my visual art installed in exhibitions more than a half-dozen times and I have sold a number of my paintings. I have made barely enough money to survive. But that was never my goal.
There is still some wrestling to be done, but finding joy in the creation of my works and sharing it with my loved ones is a decent starting point. The people who care most about me have liked me and my work without any evidence that I will ever achieve economic success; becoming happy about that myself is a big deal. But part of the change in perspective there is definitely stopping the self censorship. I've had great ideas that are socially and politically relevant now and not sharing them is, in part, based on the preconceived notion that I'll never develop future great ideas. I'm flush with creativity and good ideas and however the world changes - or I change the world - I'll continue to develop intellectually and literarily.
As for the rest . . . I'm trying to figure out acceptance for this world. After all, I don't have the wealth for a bright red sportscar.
For other articles, please check out my articles on:
Parents: It's Not The World You Remember (But It Is The One You Created!)
Facebook Is Not What You Think It Is
Why Modern Libertarianism Is Disastrous For The United States
For other reviews, please check out my Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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