I Want To Teach the World to Sing- A Blast From The Past From January 2014
When I was a kid I went through years of angst, because you see, what I wanted to do – all I wanted to do, the only work I didn’t find boring or annoying – was write, and yet I had imbued the belief that I should do something that “was socially relevant” or “contributed to society.”
In part this is why I ended up studying languages. Yep, I was going to “foster international understanding.” (Which of you giggled? Have a carp!)
Do I need to go into why this was stupid? Yes?
Look, I have nothing against believing you have something to contribute to the world beyond what the world is willing to pay you for. If I did, I wouldn’t have done the years of soul-sucking making no money whatsoever work needed to actually get good enough at my work to make money. Unfortunately writing is one of those things that really can’t be taught in the classroom. Or not well.
The problem I have is with believing that you should do something that “contributes to society” beyond, you know, what people are willing to pay you for.
The reason I object to this, is that this sort of do-goodism tends to fall into the “Christmas gifts to total strangers.” You’re giving someone things they don’t want, at great expense to yourself, and the things will just get discarded or used in ways you’ll never think of. In the worst case scenario, in which your desire to ‘give back to society’ leads you to become a politician, you end up making laws to make people use those ‘gifts’ that you insist on giving them because you’re sure they’re good for them. Obamacare for instance, is sort of like passing a law that forces everyone to wear the Christmas sweater knit by their aunt Peggy, the one with the odd color tastes, who is near blind and has the attention span of a hamster, so that the thing is ugly, shoddy and full of dropped stitches that start unravelling the moment you put the sweater on.
Look, first all – why do you need to give back to society? When did you steal it?
I’m not saying that the fact we live in a civilized society isn’t a great boon. (Though becoming less of one as… never mind) I’m not saying we all don’t make use of the various inventions since fire, or that I’m not grateful that people with more engineering skill than I have made things like this here computer I’m bootstrapping onto the information superhighway (which might have been started with a government program – so, arguably, if you want to go there, legalized theft – but which became what it is by the grace of porn, lolcats and Heinlein flame wars. I’m an active participant in the last two!)
What I’m saying is that none of those things was done for my benefit. It’s not like at the dawn of mankind someone said “Hey, Og, somewhere in the future there will be this chick named Sarah who will need this fire thing. Let’s do it for her!” It’s not even like it’s being maintained for my benefit. In the bowels of the technocracy, Engineer 24 doesn’t get up every morning and say “Hey, let’s make sure that Sarah has the internet up so she can write her blogs, so that her huns are distracted a few more hours. You know, if those guys became disgruntled, they could be dangerous.” (Okay, maybe Engineer 24 says that. He doesn’t know ya’ll were never, so to put it, gruntled.)
Yes, I have the benefit of living in a civilized (waggles hand) society. But that is mostly because every member in it gets up in the morning, scratches a place or two, grumbles through a shower and breakfast and then goes to work (those of us who work – a brave and increasingly small minority. We few, we lucky few) because it’s in his/her best interests to go to work – because work benefits him/her in ways either monetary or psychological. (And here, no fooling, though I’m making a point about working for money not immaterial yayas, if you’re unemployed and it looks to be long term – and in this economy… — consider setting a schedule and working every day at something. It could be “just” looking for a job, or it could be learning a new skill that might allow you to contract out. Or it might be, if your spouse/support person is working, cleaning the house and taking burdens off his/her shoulders so you’re contributing something. I’m not saying get up, put work clothes on and sit down to work 9 to 5. You might, of course. I often do. BUT the important thing is to do something focused and organized, so your day isn’t a blob. It is not good for man – or woman – to be idle. But the point is do it for your own benefit. Have what you do contribute something to your values and your way of life. Don’t do it “for the people.”)
This idea of doing something “to benefit” faceless others, whether they’re “society” or “the people.” When I was eight, my father told me that the greatest crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of “the people” – I’m now fifty one. I have only seen this confirmed over and over again.
The reason for this is that “the people” or “society” can’t talk. (Not really. Yes, there’s polls. There’s also lies, damn lies and statistics.) That means that “doing something for the people” becomes “doing something to the people” which involves in turn “forcing the people to do things I want.” And the “best” part is you can do it with a glow of virtue because you’re “giving back to society” for all the roads and internet and things.
The sheer and rank stupidity of these “altruistic” “gifts” to society is obvious when you think of trying to “give back” to say, your family. No, seriously. My family gives me tons in emotional support, work, sudden help with something I screwed up (thank you honey for keeping the computers running, and sons for driving me to the vet because I don’t want to drive in snow, and for countless cups of tea fetched, and for moving furniture so I can paint walls, and–.) So, periodically I try to give back. Unless this is focused and specific (say, they’re sick, and I make them lemon tea) it tends to backfire. Like when the boys were 12 and 8 and I decided to take time to play with them, because I was always writing. A) they’d planned a computer game marathon, and I really couldn’t play on their computer. B) they became very suspicious of my motives, and got weird. C) they led me to the office and told me to write. Or take the time I rearranged my husband’s office to “make it nice” for him, and we had one of the worst arguments of our marriage. (Turned out he liked the way his office was.)
If you can’t “give back” to your nearest and dearest with any degree of accuracy – beyond doing your part in the running of house and family – even supposing you owe society something… HOW are you going to give it back?
If only there were some way to be able to tell when society wants something. I mean, wants it enough to value it, and not to receive it with a half-embarrassed smile and a “thank you, aunt Peggy” and then pitch it in the trash – laws allowing? If only there were some arcane way of telling when someone wanted something enough!
Oh, I know – we’ll have these tokens that people can give each other in exchange for goods and services – cool, uh?
You’ll know that a good or service is needed/wanted by how many tokens people are willing to give you for it.
It’s a little risky, of course. Say that you wish to do something, and train for it, and later find that no one will give you tokens for it. There will be a few of those tragedies, but fortunately the cost will be born by individuals and is usually recoverable-from, since all skills have auxiliary skills that can be used to get the tokens, even though they might not be what the person REALLY wants to do. But they can do that in their spare time, when they’ve exchanged their tokens for food and rent, right?
At least we can dispense with the massive bureaucracy to weigh the contributions of engineers one through twenty four and decide what compensation they should receive! Yeah. Let’s install the token-exchange system.
What? What do you mean it’s already been done? Oh. I see. Og sold the secret of fire for enough salt to put on the meat he cooked? Miraculous. You mean he didn’t invent fire “to give back to society” for the pelts and things he got? And then, over time, the exchange evolved to symbolic tokens, so we can all shop for what we want and need without carrying a live goat in each pocket? And all of this takes place on its own, without government intervention? And in fact goes on despite government intervention, in the form of black markets, in tyrannies? And it gives us an accurate representation of what large numbers of people want and need? (Don’t blame me if what they want and need is often the sham wow.) Who would have thought of that?
… Certainly not our enlightened leaders, and not anyone who has gone through school systems in western countries, where we are taught that greed (i.e. making money in exchange for what you produce) is bad, and that your aim in life should be to “improve the world” and “change society.”
Heck, they convinced even me.
I’m not the best example. Translation would probably have paid better in the long run. But I couldn’t take it. Turns out – I know, shocker – that if people understood what everyone says the world over, we’d have a ton more wars. (Not to mention murders of entire countries. Think of it as the family of nations babbling loudly in the back seat of the world car. “If Syria doesn’t stop singing that annoying song, I’m going to bash its collective head.” “Iran, if you don’t stop whining about Israel, I’m going to come back there and give you what for.” “No, honestly, Greece, if you ate all your cookies, Germany doesn’t have to give you any.” “And no one touch anyone else!”)
So, I went into writing and so far – slowly – it pays enough for my simple needs, though the irregularity of pay makes me neurotic like a shaved Persian. And besides, I have plans to make more. And I bear the cost of my failures – i.e. I throw my own d*mn Christmas sweaters in the trash, instead of making laws to force everyone to wear them.
Honestly, given the fractured histories and fraught personalities of people who devote their lives to “giving back to society” all I can think is “and they give it to society good and hard.”
For the rest of us – particularly the idealistic fools among us – by all means don’t turn your back on charity. Help those in need if you know what they need and are sure you’re not projecting. (The best way to do this is to give to those you know well, because then you also know when aid becomes a shackle and know when to stop. Always remember, in charity as in anything else, that your first rule should be “first do no harm.”)
But as your main work in life? Do what people will pay you for. Study how to optimize your work so they give you more. If you fail, pick yourself up, figure out what your mistake was, and start again.
And don’t worry about being “greedy.” Unless you’re making money by playing currency speculation (and even that might have its uses in G-d’s wide world. I just don’t understand enough to tell you what they are) or other financial shell games dependent on a system of crony capitalism, take that money as a sign you’re doing something society wants.
Heaven knows why society would want the sham wow. But if that’s what they do want, give it to them and take the money, and laugh all the way to the bank.
The other way lies incompetence, greed for power, coercion, and truly nasty Christmas sweaters (or non functional health systems) that you’re required by law to use and pay for.
Give back to society like Og did – go make some money!