Three Modern Myths: "Happy Ever After", "Retirement", and "Robotic Utopia"
by Nicole Sallak Anderson
Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand it and accept it — then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
Thus begins, The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck, one of the greatest and most accessible books on the human condition that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. My therapist gave it to me when I was twenty-two, just hatched from college and home, and out in the “real world” for the first time. I remember reading this passage over and over, knowing it was true from the get go, but wanting to deny it none-the-less. It would take the next three decades to finally surrender to it.
Life is difficult, it’s the nature of living in a body. At its most basic, energy and effort are required at every turn to care for and manage the physical form, to keep it fed, clothed and safe. Add to this other bodies to take care of, as well as a community to build, and lastly the things we want to make/sell/buy and all the effort that goes into our possessions…indeed life is difficult.
And I haven’t even mentioned the emotional difficulty of being in relationship with one another. Indeed, life is difficult, and yet it seems that for many of us, we see our difficulties as abnormal, as a punishment, as if life should be easy. The paradox is, once we accept life isn’t easy, we actually begin to live with ease.
Lately, I’ve seen a lot written about how younger generations aren’t developing resiliency, the character trait in which one meets a challenging task and rather than give up, keeps trying until the task has been completed. Instead of seeing a difficult homework assignment as important, today’s kids tend to become anxious and are scared of failing. Rather than keep at it, they give up, or blame the teacher, for their inability to see the task through to completion. There’s abundant advice out there on how we can teach children resiliency, such as giving them chores to accomplish at an early age, or supporting them with difficult tasks as they navigate the complexities of their school and social lives. We’re told we need to teach them to “never give up” and that if we don’t, they won’t be able to face the challenges ahead.
It does fall to us to teach our children well, but I don’t think resiliency is a skill, rather it’s a choice that each of us has to make. We don’t learn to never give up, we accept that doing is the nature of life, because life is work. There is no escaping it, indeed there is no other path than to keep going and never give up.
The choice to accept that life is difficult is the moment one becomes resilient.
What if our kids aren’t able to face the stress, pain and work before them because we, the adults of this age, aren’t able to face the stress, pain and work before us? Instead of meeting the difficulties, we act as if they’re temporary, something that shouldn’t be, and tell ourselves fairy tales that someday we’ll get to a point where all the difficulty falls away, and we never have to struggle again. We avoid facing the truth by telling lies to hide the fact that life is difficult and there’s no getting around it. And we teach our children the same lies, destroying any chance at developing the resilient character needed to master life.
Our culture does not reward hard work. We resent those who enjoy working, calling them workaholics and accusing them of avoiding leisure. Something must be wrong if you’d rather work than sit around and binge Netflix. Work is seen as an evil that must be eradicated. We hold dear the idea that once we achieve whatever goal we have, we will never work again. That somehow, work will disappear, if we follow the rules of engagement. When we’ve made it, life will be easy and we’ll sit around all day and play golf. Out there, in the future, is a world where no one works, and everyone is happy.
This, my friends, is a lie. There is no future where no one works, because life in the body requires work. Even the richest among us must clean their bodies, wipe their asses after a shit, and chew and swallow their food. They have to exercise and eat right, which takes work. Ask any homemaker and they’ll tell you that work never ends. If you’re awake, something needs to be done, because life is work. Only the dead can truly rest.
I hope I don’t sound old and grumpy. I’m actually quite the opposite. I still don’t like to work, and there is some work I’d rather do (like write my novels) than others (like cooking dinner), but after all these years, I finally don’t resent the fact either. Rather than seeking to find a day when all work stops, for after thirty plus years of adult life the work just keeps coming and coming, or to organize my time to the minute in order to maybe get some time to do what I want, because the moment I sit down to do what I want someone will always need my help, I’ve begun to meet each moment and ask, “What needs to be done now?” In this way, I no longer resent the fact that life is difficult, nor do I resent those who don’t “do their fair share.” What is anyone’s fair share really? If something needs to be done, then someone needs to do it, even if that person is me.
I’d agree that our children are anxious because they lack resiliency. But perhaps the reason for this isn’t because we’ve spoiled them, but rather than teach them the truth that life is difficult, we lie to them, and tell them that in order to be truly happy, the work of life must be avoided. We do this with the subtle tales that we ourselves believe and actually glorify. Perhaps if we take the time to look at these lies, and the stories we tell each other, we can begin to see the truth of life and make a choice to accept its difficulties and thus, become resilient.
Here are three of the biggest lies perpetuated in our society that teach us that the work of life is unnatural and something to be avoided at all costs.
1. Happily Ever After
We all know this one — the entire wedding industry, as well as every Disney tale, is based upon it. The reason for our unhappiness is that we’re alone and the moment we find the perfect person, we’ll be happy. Moreover, the only effort that needs to be put forth is planning a nice big wedding. This lie teaches our children that falling in love is easy and without effort, you’ll know he’s the one at first glance. It will also solve all of your problems. Life ceases to be work if you’ve found your one true love. If there are arguments, he’s not the one. Romance doesn’t require work, just a kiss. Once the honeymoon phase is over however, the real work of love sets in, and many of us panic, assuming something must be wrong. Unhappiness festers, we’re no longer glowing. Soon we either constantly fight, or avoid one another. After that, many divorce.
Our love stories often imply that we will struggle in other relationships until we find our soul mate, and then everything falls into place. You’ll find that prince and live happily ever after, knowing his every desire and meeting it with perfection. And if that’s not the case, if instead it takes effort to keep the flame going, then someone has done something wrong. Either way, blame begins and as soon as that happens, we breakup, hoping to find someone else who can be our ideal partner and make life easier. This lie teaches our children that love and sex don’t take any effort at all, and that in fact, if they do take effort, then something is wrong with you.
An economic concept that is only a few generations old, this is the idea that if you save your money for forty years while working for the man, you can retire when you’re sixty and never have to work again. While many men born in the thirties through the fifties actually have experienced retirement, but most of us born since 1965 will not have this luxury, and it’s driving Gen X and Y crazy. Two recessions have decimated their retirement plans and pensions. The cost of living is so high, very few will be able to retire like their fathers did. The fact that we won’t be able to spend our golden years golfing under the Florida sun may feel like a failure, as if we’ve done something wrong. But here’s the deal, any woman in that same age group will tell you that they never retired. The work of the house continued, even after the breadwinner left his traditional job to live off his pension. Her work actually increased because she had to take care of him all day, in addition to the household work she’d been doing since she married.
Retirement has been, for the most part, a white, male dream. And here’s something else, the idea of refraining from “work” for the last thirty years of your life is an entirely new concept. Prior to 1935, if you lived, you worked, most likely on a farm, or factory, or if you were rich you managed the farm and factory until your last breath, or until your health rendered you incompetent and your children took over while you wasted away in a rocker on the front porch, talking nonsense to the grandchildren. Regardless, you worked until your body no longer functioned. Then came the baby boomers, leaving work by 60, some even younger, and building 55+ communities in the sunniest places across the nation. Suddenly, after thousands of years of working to death, we no longer had to.
Caring for our elderly makes sense, but the myth of retirement has taught us that to work is a curse that you must plan to leave as soon as you can, and that if you play your cards right, you’ll be sitting pretty the last thirty years of your life. It’s a myth that teaches all of us, including our kids, that life shouldn’t be about work, and that the only reason we do it is to make money. This completely ignores the fact that we actually work to live, and live to work, regardless of our retirement schemes. Even if you quit your job, you will still work. Our communities, homes and families need our efforts, and taking care of those aspects of life can be very difficult, at any age. Regardless, after a mere seventy years, the retirement myth has already begun to fall apart, because we lack the economic discipline to make it a reality.
3. Robotic Utopia
The myth that work is beneath us is what drove us to enslave one another in the first place. Work is for the “working class” and the elites have long tried to avoid it. First they captured people from other nations to use as labor, buying and selling one another to avoid the grueling work that needs to be done to support human life on Earth. They also created class systems to provide a plethora of human capital to do the dirty work of life. When nations began to make slavery illegal and then formed unions to protect worker’s rights, we turned to machines and enslaved them. Today the fairy tale of our times is a utopia where none of us works at all while Rosie the Robot does everything, including wiping our asses. We’re both excited and fearful of this future — for if robots can do all the work, then what will we do? Oh, how will man live if he is idle? Again, any homemaker will tell you that work continues, even if you don’t go into the office.
It is nearly impossible to be idle if you live in the body. It will wake you to pee and your stomach will grumble until you get some food. You must care for yourself and the home around you. Yes, machines make that labor easier, but the labor of life still exists. We must work at our relationships (see number one above) we must raise our children, we must learn to read and write, we must put on our clothes and clean our bodies. Robots can’t save us from the work of life, so far they’ve just allowed us to get more of that work done in a day. This is wonderful, I can do all my laundry in three hours rather than three days, but the clothes still need to be put in the hamper and washed. Longing for a future where no one does anything while machines drone around us doing the work of life teaches our children that the efforts they put in right now are beneath them, work that someone, or something, else should do, and will in the future. At which point, all their efforts in school and work are useless, if they’re just going to be replaced by machines. How does a generation remain hopeful when they’re constantly being told that they’re not really needed, because robots are just going to replace them?
There are many other lies about work and the effort of life that we tell ourselves, but these three — happily ever after romance, retirement, and a future where robots do all of our work — encourage us to meet the work of the now with suspicion. We’re constantly trying to avoid the work, or be more efficient, or assume that if something is difficult, something is wrong. This is the root of all suffering — attachment to the idea that life should be easy.
Plain and simple, life is work and trying to avoid work ruins our relationships, our creative endeavors and our internal spirits. Depression seeps in when we realize it’s never going to be better than it is now. We get angry at others for not doing their share, or worse, for asking us to help. Our children need our time and attention, our spouses need our love, our parents need our help, our communities need our efforts and above all, our democracy needs our engagement. All of this is difficult.
The paradox, according to M. Scott Peck, is a simple one. Once we accept life is difficult, the work just is. Nothing more, nothing less. Meeting each moment and doing the work that is needed brings ease to the worried mind. This is resilience, and rather than try to teach it, life asks that we embody it, one activity at a time.