10/15/13

Deep Thoughts #8: This Is Progress?


There can be no doubt that we live in climate of sweeping change..... but is it progress?

You have to really take a long hard look at what "progress" means to answer that question.  Is it progress to have big-ass flat screen televisions, impossibly cheap corn based food, high speed internet, air conditioning, stainless steel refrigerators and granite counter-tops - but we each have to work sixty hours a week? Or, instead of progress, are these just sad little treats; a poor exchange for a life of labor?



Take a look at us 12,000 years ago.  We lived like those dirty hippies idealized: one with the Earth, unshackled materialism, with butt-loads of leisure time.  Indeed, anthropologists call these hunter-gatherers the "Original Aristocracy" because of the amount of leisure time they had.

Fast forward to, say, the Middle Ages.  I'm not going to stand here and proclaim that life as a feudal serf was Club-Med.  Back breaking labor, living in tiny homes packed with smelly extended family members, and fecal material everywhere - gross.  But, even so, there was a lot of positive to this lifestyle....


For one, you knew where you stood from the moment you were born (provided you didn't die in childbirth, which was pretty damn likely).  Your great grandfather was a cobbler? Guess what? You're a cobbler and so are your kids. No trillion dollar student debt, no neighbors to envy with their shiny new hybrid car, no Capital One Visa debt haunting your dreams.  It's the simple life served up straight.  Plus, leisure time up the yin-yang. Take a look at the number of Catholic holidays there were (before that pesky Protestant work ethic took over); combine that with breaks during the day for prayer and "thanksgiving" (i.e. heavy drinking)... and it's a wonder these yeomen were able to tend to those fields at all.

The one big negative is mortality rates. Whether it's 8,000 BC or 1,240 AD, chances were if you cut your leg on a flint knife and it gets infected - just go ahead and say good bye to your wife and kids, because you're a dead man.  No antibiotics, no vaccines, no surgery (no surgery that wouldn't do more harm than good, that is), no gas permeable contact lenses, no Tucks medicated cooling pads, etc.

But I say, "so what"?  I get it - we live longer.  But what is the quality of life in those last remaining years?  Sure, the upper echelon that can afford it may have a gay old time in Boca, but for the vast majority of us, getting old sucks.  And while medical advances have certainly kept me dropping dead from diphtheria, we're still dropping like flies from heart disease and cancer (and bankrupting our families in the process).  In other words, I completely understand that there's been vast medical improvements, but let's not oversell it.

The Industrial Revolution is largely to blame for taking a species and shackling them to a desk or an assembly line, denying them the free time to experience life. To go against this tide you are a "Luddite" or a hippie, a slacker, an enemy of the state, or a dickhead (okay I just added that last one to make a point).


During the seventies, there was a brief feeling in the air to regain our freedom.  It's so intangible that it will never get written in a history textbook (at least not correctly). To be precise, the true desire for freedom, to break free from the shackles of materialism, wasn't inherent in the hippie movement.  For most hippies, unfortunately, the movement was primarily about doing drugs and having sex without consequence.

The feeling I'm talking about manifested itself in youth just "dropping out" and heading to the woods and disappearing for a while.  It manifested itself in long road trips to nowhere (i.e. Me and You and a Dog Named Boo), living day to day.  But even so, in trying to give examples, I'm still falling far short.  For you can still work, have a family, and be fully inline with the New Freedom and reject what society has termed "progress".

To put it in the modern vernacular - maybe Google Glass is just stupid.  Maybe 40 hours devoted to my job is too damn much.  Maybe I don't need a garden tub and a walk-in closet.  Maybe my kids don't need six hours of homework every night, maybe.... just maybe... having more leisure time doesn't mean I'm a slacker.  Maybe it's a way to become more well-read, expand my mind, grow closer to my family, and get rid of this overbearing stress that comes from something we like to call "Progress".

Just a thought.

17 comments:

  1. I'm fortunate to work 40 hours a week...and ONLY 40 hours a week. That job also gives me 28 days vacation/paid time off a year. That's almost 6 work weeks! Unless I win the lottery, there's no way I'm quitting my job. Any other job would slash my vacation time by 2/3!

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  2. You're not alone in your thinking. I have thought a lot about this topic as well. It has lead me to change my life twice. I am 42 and just old enough to remember what that illusive feeling in the air felt like. My parents were bikers in the 70's and didn't succumb to many of the trappings in this modern life. Unfortunately drugs did get the better of them. However, I have benefited from their misgivings.

    I was an airline pilot and my wife a chemical engineer. We had land, a house we could barely afford, and lots of "things". We woke up one day and thought how silly we were being. My wife quit her job to become a stay at home mom. We sold everything and moved into a two bedroom apartment. Eventually we bought a smaller house and tried not to acquire too many "things".

    That went well for a while until I got tired of living under the stress of such a demanding career. Again we sold most of our "things", moved into an apartment and I quit my job. I now work for the government. I work a fairly stress free 40 hours a week (and no more than 40 hours a week) and have plenty of vacation. I make half the money that I would make as an airline pilot but my quality of life has improved greatly. I, and my family, are happier than I,we, have ever been. I am probably as happy as I was when I was young, single and in college but in a different way. I bought a "time capsule house" built in 1973 and back dated it to it's original splendor, avocado fridge, oven, sink, shag carpet and all. We live within blocks of my children's schools, my wife is in the PTA and my kids ride their bikes up and down my street after school. As fake and trite as the Brady Bunch show was I think that we have captured some of that in my family. I don't have credit card debt or car payments. We never worry about the few bills we do have (house payment, utilities, groceries, etc.) because we live on a budget and make more than we spend. Life is pretty damn good.

    It took a lot for me to get where I am today. What I mean is, it took a lot of rethinking on my part. I think that that 70's feeling that can't be written down in a book had merit. The hippies went too far by wanting to live like hunter gatherers but they certainly were right about finding a balance in this life. Living on the edge, or over the edge, of your financial means, living with crushing stress and not having time to simply be with your family is a curse.

    That 70's feeling is gone in today's culture. Sadly, many of those who lived back then have forgotten that feeling. It is also a feeling that will likely not return. So, I agree when you say that there was a feeling back then that can't be written down. It was a cool time. I may be grasping at straws but I think that I have successfully stepped back a in time a bit. Yeah, there's no escaping some things deemed as progress, ie. modern tv's, modern cars, computers and gadgets, but doesn't mean that you can't arrange your life and your thinking to live intentionally, To live in a way that brings you happiness.

    I gotta go. The original Hawaii 5-0 is on. Viva la 70's.

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    1. An inspirational story - and I don't mean that in the cliched sense. We need to hear more stories like this to counteract the barrage of materialist stimuli we receive on a daily basis. You really have to not just take a step back from your life, but rather climb a mountain and look down on everything to gain the perspective necessary to do what you did. Bravo and Book 'em Danno.

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    2. Funny thing, but I am actually attempting to write a book that captures that elusive 70's feeling. Wish me luck, I'm going to need it.

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    3. JSusskind finish that book because I want to read it! Ethan there is something profound in what you wrote. As I read it I saw your life and your parents lives unfold and reflected upon the personal history of this country for a number of decades. This is something you can usually only get from fiction or personal stories or books rather than dry history textbooks. (That's where you come in too J!) I think when you talk about intention you talk about knowing yourself and what makes you happy which of course might be different for every person. It takes a lot personal experience and even trial and error to come to that.

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  3. "Big-ass flat screen televisions, impossibly cheap corn based food, high speed internet, air conditioning, stainless steel refrigerators and granite counter-tops..."

    We now have all that, so why isn't anyone happy these days?

    Also, your point about wanting or needing more leisure time is interesting...But why does it seem everyone is now spending TONS of time in front of TV ("What?! You're not watching ---------?!?") and at the movies these days...Just one more thing to keep the masses from self-relection, reading, and growing?

    Al Bigley

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    1. A critical point that I didn't emphasize is that leisure time is worthless if you're spending it in an impenetrable bubble of "Duck Dynasty" and "Grand Theft Auto". It's not just about having ample time outside of work, it's about having the piece of mind to do something meaningful. There will always be a majority who are satiated by the "bread and circuses"; however, the key is to having a society where you have the freedom and ability to choose your path.

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  4. "Change" is never viewed as positive while it is happening. There were plenty of people of all colors who thought ending slavery was not such a good idea. And, while having more leisure time might be a "way to become more well-read, expand my mind, grow closer to my family, and get rid of this overbearing stress that comes from something we like to call "Progress," " let us be a little honest. If you have more time on your hands, don't tortoise things usually get put off until "tomorrow" ???

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    1. Yeah and maybe procrastination isn't such a bad thing. To have the freedom to put things off for another day sounds nice actually. :-)

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  5. And then there's the government....The opposite of Progress is Congress.

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  6. Tom LammersOctober 16, 2013

    I save myself a lot of trouble and bother by not blogging.

    Just sayin' ...

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    1. If it makes you happy - provides you with a little bit of joy each day, you may want to try it.

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  7. This is the most inspiring post I've read in a long time. I think Progress is a myth because for every improvement there is another thing that gets worse or stays bad. For example, there has never before been more equality of opportunity for different identities of people and never have more people gone on to college and never before been has there been knowledge of health issues BUT the spectre of global warming, storms and environmental decline is always hovering Then there is the threat of terrorism and political extremism. I believe in improvement in the adhoc sense, you can improve an area, say, but Progress in everything, progress with a capital P is a myth sold both by utopian Marxists and extreme Ayn Rand Capitalist hucksters. It is a myth because not only are there things that have gotten worse as you pointed out, in cost of living, stress of labor but because people's individual tastes are different and at odds, in terms of what makes for happiness. You can't quantify happiness, there is a mysterious subjective element to it that can't be measured or planned for. You have your finger on something about the 1970s though. The only reason why it won't be in textbooks is that most of the textbooks are written by baby boomers who are fixated on the 1960s, but that is a whole other story. And having grown up in the 1970s enabled me to get lost and play outdoors, no absorption in a screen for me, and you know what? In that one sense alone that way was better, at least for me.

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    1. Indeed. The Road to Shambala isn't going to be found in a textbook or on HGTV. To see through the "progress" myth requires an existential bitch slap from your soul.

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  8. Gilligan, not a criticism--just silly nitpicking meaning no offense, but you surely intended "peace of mind," not "piece of mind." :D

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    1. Thanks sew mulch. Know a fence Thai ken.

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  9. I'm glad you remained so compost!

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