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Monday, April 7, 2014

Doing, being, and speaking truth to power


Last Monday, Katherine and I were talking about how insane March had been for both of us.  My two new classes provided enough challenge, but once the Faculty of Arts Performance Review Committee started its work, the Mondays and Fridays that gave me time to prepare and mark disappeared into reading files and going to meetings.  In one of those shifts in topic you only notice later, Katherine and I took the conversation from our own busyness to the series we'd both been reading in The Globe and Mail on the role of technology in our lives. In "Overwhelmed:  Why We Need to Take Back Leisure Time," Zosia Bielski talked to Brigid Schulte, who has written Overwhelmed:  Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.  Schulte ironically notes that our cell phones and our email accounts were supposed to make our lives easier, but that instead our constant connection to the demands of work has perhaps made our work lives busier and more invasive, not simpler. Bielsky notes that "Still, for all the kvetching about having no time, Schulte contends the sickness is partly our own fault:  North Americans would rather achieve than relax.  In a culture that worships work, busyness has become a badge of honour.  'To be idle is to be irrelevant,' she writes, pointing out that many people mistake leisure for laziness and frivolity.  So just what is true leisure? Having studied everything from the relatively nascent field of time research to the ancient Greek philosophers, Schulte offers this answer:  'It involves being in the moment, cultivating yourself and connecting with people.  The idea is to do something for its own sake, without obligation.  It is meaningful human experience--refreshing the soul, if you will.'"  Later in the article, Schulte notes that when our Facebook status update gets a "like," or we answer our cell phone from the grocery store, our brains get a squirt of dopamine. 

I suspect I frequently got the same kind of squirt when I would start my day with a long to-do list, get through it, and then feel two contradictory things. There was a small high:  I was doing it; I was afloat.  I could actually manage something that felt inhuman.  (Now I wonder whether that sense of accomplishment was sane.)  At the same time, unless this to-do list involved students or ideas, I could feel, in almost the same breath, empty and indifferent, as if all I had managed to do was to navigate some intriguing obstacle course that someone else had created just to see whether I still had the stuff.

In yet another conversational turn, Katherine and I observed in almost the same instant that whether our busyness was caused by an impossible work load or by our love affair with technology, the result was the same.  We had little time to reflect on our lives, to consider whether the values behind our busyness were meaningful.  We had little time to be disruptive or rebellious. We don't really have time to consider whether we're being played by our culture or our employers. It's brilliant, really.

Realizing the way our busyness and our satisfaction with our busyness ensures that we don't get out of line makes me want to ask a couple more questions.  First, I wonder if the people who have observed the dopamine hit we get as we use our technology have done any studies of the cortisol levels of people whose work loads are unreasonable or of people who are addicted to technology?  Because I suspect both the need to be told we are relevant by some Facebook friend who is nearly a stranger, and our willingness to let work invade our lives 24/7 is a product of fear.  It may the existential fear of people living in urban environments without the support of an extended family or rich friendships.  (Think about it:  Katherine and I meet for coffee at 7:30 a.m.on Monday mornings.  I have similar early morning dates with Jeanne Shami. What does this say about friendship in the 21st century?)  Or it may be the existential fear of a highly individualized culture that makes it difficult for many of us to find "kindred spirits."  Or it may be fear that our jobs are not secure unless we not only give 120%, but are seen to be giving 120%.  I remember being on a hiring committee for a job that the supervisor admitted had a crushing workload.  I told him "This is crazy!  Redefine the job!"  He looked at me as if I were speaking Russian. 

My second question is how, under these circumstances, do we "speak truth to power"?  If we have no time to reflect, if we are anxious about our existential value or our job security, how do we effect change in the world?  When I realized that our workloads and our dependencies affected our energy or ability to rebel and question, that wonderful phrase I remember from the early days of feminism came back to me. Looking for its origin, I found that it comes from a Society of Friends' pamphlet entitled "Speak Truth to Power:  A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence." 

Virginia Woolf, one who certainly sought to "speak truth to power" and who had a Quaker aunt, saw some of these problems in 1930s England and wrote about them in Three Guineas.  Studying the tendency of men in her society to work more hours than is human, but to resist asking others (a.k.a. women) for help, she took a hard look at the results of such single-mindedness.  Reading memoirs of successful, hard-working men who talk about the price they have paid for their success, Woolf notes "And those opinions cause us to doubt and criticize and question the value of professional life--not its cash value; that is great; but its spiritual, its moral, its intellectual value.  They make us of the opinion that if people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes.  They have no time to look at pictures.  Sound goes.  They have no time to listen to music.  Speech goes.  They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion--the relations between one thing and another.  Humanity goes....What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, and sound, and sense of proportion?  Only a cripple in a cave."  Her thoughts are just as relevant today under vastly different circumstances; it is as likely to be a woman as a man who has become the cripple in the cave who has lost her or his sense of proportion. 

I want to go back to Schulte's observation that "to be idle is to be irrelevant." Irrelevant to whom?  (I want to put about three question marks after that question, but that is too reminiscent of FB-speak.)  One of my most relevant accomplishments this month was to manage Sheba's reactions to a food allergy and to the medication we gave her for that, medication that made the rash feel better and her tummy to feel awful.  She became a household ghost, spending as much time in closets as possible. Sheba, you see, is a little obsessive; if sleeping in a closet feels good, more sleep in a closet will feel better.  Her obsessions, like everyone's, have to be challenged.  So every day, I would get her out of the closet a little earlier, encourage her to spend a little bit of quality time with me. I've almost managed to return her behaviour to normal, and she's rediscovered that hanging out with Twig is comforting; they're both at the end of the bed where I'm hunkered down, out of the rain of marking and teaching to do a little important reflecting here. We need to decide that we are always relevant, that only we have the power to make ourselves relevant, and that our relevance probably has much more to do with the way we treat the people and the creatures in our immediate world than it has to do with the number FB friends or our salaries. And then we will be able to speak the truth, knowing how powerless power can sometimes be.  

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