Courtney E. Martin, in her new book called The New Better Off argues that our society is moving away from what was once considered “the good life.” For years, people said things like “well, I want my kids to be better off than I was,” and often times that meant hoping those kids got a steadier job, or a nicer/bigger house, or into a better financial situation. But perhaps there’s a cost to putting all of life’s meaning under the old definition of “better off.” In her introduction Martin says,
…what’s more, some of the things we have associated with success actually endanger our health [and leave us unhappy.] Underneath the appearance of uplift, a complex [success] story weighs us down. This could play out in a number of ways…like when people set aside authentic career ambitions in favor of more lucrative paths; or when a father knows his colleagues better than he does his own kids; or a mother leans in so hard she falls flat on her face. Pressure and debt, missed get togethers, living for the weekend, living someone else’s dream. “Better off” left uninterrogated, can be fucking dangerous.
According to Martin’s take on things, being “better off” doesn’t always mean staying in one secure job forever and climbing the proverbial ladder to perceived success and material prosperity. I think “the new better off” means finding little bits of meaning in every portion of our lives and living from the feeling that comes from doing so. I am better off when I can spend my day feeling how I want to feel, not chasing a version of ‘better off’ that is simply not better for what my soul wants. I want to live each day in a way that fills me up, so I feel full of wonder and appreciation of beauty and light. I want to feel accomplished in the sense that what I do with my days matters and does something that contributes to the healing of the world. I want to make a positive impact on those with whom I interact, and that impact surely doesn’t have to be the result of something that I get paid to do. But this is hard to balance in a world where money still holds the trump card more often than we want to admit. Privileged or not, bills don’t just fade away with intention and positive thinking. (or at least I’m not yet that spiritual evolved..) Striking the right balance takes hard work, support from a community, and perhaps a bit of luck.
No one’s claiming that figuring out how to plug into life’s meaning around, for lack of, or in spite of a job is easy. Identifying what “the new better off” looks like in a period of uncertainty is no picnic. These last four weeks – the four weeks after being laid off from what I thought was a very secure job after ten years of employment – have been some of the most challenging of recent memory. I have two weeks left to go before my position is officially “eliminated”, and it’s really hard to keep showing up at work knowing every call I make is the last one, and that soon when someone asks me what I do for work, I won’t be sure what to say. But I feel better when I remember Annie Dillard’s words:
We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience— even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting.
From here my work needs to be to stalk meaning in a way that locates that tender spot and holding on tight to the pulse. I’m going to do my best to yield, not fight, when it comes to letting life’s purpose in.