Someone I know has a burning passion for helping young women recognize and avoid unhealthy relationships – and the pain and humiliation that go with them – and to acquire the skills to engage in healthy ones. She has spent the last dozen years of her life studying, researching, networking with experts, speaking with and to youth and their parents about this issue; along the way, she has acquired a Master’s degree and written two books. For my friend, pursuing this cause is an unwavering full-time commitment – often involving long uninterrupted stretches of 12-14-hour days – for which she has not received one cent of remuneration and for which she has sacrificed hours of pleasure with her family and friends, the most basic of material comforts – a latte at Starbucks, an hour at the hairdressers, a meal in a restaurant – and financial security.
Why has she made this commitment and why does she live it? Why does she sacrifice so severely? Because she has no choice. This is what she has been called to do. This is her bliss.
I have written elsewhere on this site (here and here) about Joseph Campbell’s exhortation to “follow your bliss.” For Campbell, bliss is not the gratifying feeling one gets from indulging in personal pleasure; rather it is “that deep sense of being present, of doing what you absolutely must do to be yourself.” He goes on:
“If you can hang on to that, you are on the edge of the transcendent already. You may not have any money, but it doesn’t matter. When I came back from my student years in Germany and Paris, it was three weeks before the Wall Street crash in 1929, and I didn’t have a job for five years. And, fortunately for me, there was no welfare. I had nothing to do but sit in Woodstock and read and figure out where my bliss lay. There I was, on the edge of excitement all the time.”
Doing what you absolutely must do to be yourself, or following your bliss, is not easy; it doesn’t happen automatically once you decide, or discover, what it is you love to do, a process that in itself may be challenging and time-consuming, as it was in Campbell’s case.
The American novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany) wrote and published three novels, each receiving positive critical reviews, and each of them failing to sell, before he could actually make a living as a writer. To support his family Irving took teaching jobs and for ten years, before the international success of The World According to Garp made him famous and wealthy, was only able to pursue his passion for two hours a day.
Irving spends four to five years on each novel he writes, painstakingly constructing the plot, researching the various worlds of the characters, drafting, and rewriting, and rewriting again. His 2006 semi-autobiographical novel Until I Hear From You took seven years to write. The manuscript had finally been delivered to the publisher when Irving decided that he had to change the point of view of the novel from first person to third person; he took it back and spent another nine months rewriting Until I Hear From You, cutting twenty-five thousand words from the book in the process.
Writing a work of non-fiction about relationships – or writing a novel – requires discipline, long hours of work, sacrifice, and patience. Yet if I asked my friend if she loved what she does, the unhesitating response would be “Yes!” I am sure that Mr. Irving would concur.
But there are those who feel that the idea of following your bliss or doing what you love to do is elitist, that those who seek to do what they love are merely pursuing their personal pleasure, while ignoring, denigrating, or even exploiting those who do “real work.”
In an article, entitled “In the Name of Love,” published in the magazine Jacobin (“a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture”), art historian and writer Miya Tokumitsu says, “While ‘do what you love’ sounds harmless and precious, it is ultimately self-focused to the point of narcissism.” Tokumitsu believes that it is only members of a privileged or elite class who have the wherewithal to pursue the work they love and that this “unofficial work mantra for our time” allows the privileged group to look askance at those who grow or transport their food, empty their office wastebaskets, or care for their children or elderly parents.
In her article Tokumitsu cites the example of Steve Jobs and his 2005 commencement address to the graduating students of Stanford University. In his speech, Jobs portrays Apple “as a labor of his individual love” and encourages the students gathered before him to find what they love, as “the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Tokumitsu claims that in relating his personal success story as the result of loving what he does, Jobs “elided the labor of untold thousands in Apple’s factories, conveniently hidden from sight on the other side of the planet – the very labor that allowed Jobs to actualize his love.”
Given the nature of the publication in which her article appears and her use of terms like “exploitation,” “class,” and “the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism,” it is clear that Tokumitsu’s argument is ideologically based. As such, it is circumscribed to fit her ideological framework.
First, doing what you love is not the exclusive privilege of the wealthy elite. My “healthy relationship” friend is about as far from upper class as foie gras is from a peanut butter sandwich, yet she is following her bliss. One of the problems with Tokumitsu’s argument is that she ties doing what you love too closely to job and money; finding and following your bliss is a state of mind and a way of life. Many are fortunate to also be able to make a living doing what they love, and some even get rich. But those who truly follow their bliss are usually able and willing to live on much less, to delay – or even forego – many of the material goods others feel they cannot do without. This is not to say that the bliss followers don’t want these things, only that they have put them in their proper place in the larger picture.
Second, doing what you love does not necessarily lead to devaluing or exploiting workers; greed does that. One might argue that a professional hockey or football player whose agent demands a $10-million annual salary is succumbing to greed, but I would suggest that a player who is not a star and therefore earns a much smaller salary is not going to stop doing what he loves and seek more lucrative work because the game does not pay enough – because he feels he is being exploited. One wonders, in fact, if there are not millions of non-stars who could be earning far more in the corporate world but have instead chosen the deeply satisfying, but usually far less lucrative path of bliss.
Third, most of us could be doing what we love but are not. Of course, there are also those who are unable to follow their bliss – refugees, people with physical or psychological/emotional disabilities, the very poor. It is these people we must help so that they also may have the opportunity to do what they love.
But what about the guy who drives the truck that picks up the garbage from Apple headquarters? Is he following his bliss or is he hauling trash because he has a wife and three kids to support? Here, then, is the heart of the matter; here are the questions that Miya Tokumitsu’s socialist agenda does not include. Could it be that the garbage truck driver actually enjoys and is quite good at, say, fixing things – motorcycles, old cars, diesel engines – but instead of going to school and then apprenticing to get his mechanic’s ticket, he opted for quick money so that he could buy the nice car that would impress his girlfriend? Or perhaps he lacked confidence, was afraid to take the step toward qualification because he was convinced he would fail (he never did well in school, after all).
Now he realizes he made a mistake. Driving a truck is excruciatingly boring, but he has three kids and cannot afford to quit his job and go back to school. He repairs his friends’ cars, services his father-in-law’s Mercedes, and has been restoring a ’57 Chev for three years, but his best friend Leo, who did go to school, gets to tinker full-time and is well paid for having fun.
I am like Garbage Truck Driver; I have friends and family members who are like Garbage Truck Driver. I am sure there are countless others like him. The issue is not whether there is dignity in picking up trash (there is); it is whether or not collecting trash – or pushing paper or baking bread – is what you love to do and would be happy doing for the rest of your life.
To be continued.
“Follow your bliss” by Celestine Chua. Creative commons flickr. Some rights reserved.
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)