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  • Writer's pictureErin

A few lessons from some long-dead farmers

My freshmen classes and I have been reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for the entire second quarter of school. To be quite honest, none of us are very big fans of the book as a whole. But they're working on their final essays from it this week, one of the prompts inspired from a section of the book that stopped me in my tracks...


All of us, for example, are descended at some point from hunter-gatherers, and many hunter-gatherers, by all accounts, had a pretty leisurely life...All told, !Kung [one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in the world today] men and women work no more than about twelve to nineteen hours a week, with the balance of the time spent dancing, entertaining, and visiting family and friends. That's, at most, one-thousand hours of work a year... Or consider the life of a peasant in eighteenth-century Europe. Men and women in those days probably worked from dawn to noon two hundred days a year, which works out to about twelve hundred hours of work annually. During harvest or spring planting, the day might be longer. In the winter, much less. In The Discovery of France, the historian Graham Robb argues that peasant life in a country like France, even well into the nineteenth century, was essentially brief episodes of work followed by long periods of idleness. (Gladwell, 233-234).

Gladwell goes on to further discuss the main topic of this chapter, Chinese rice paddy farmers, and how their average amount of work per year totaled over 3000 hours - well over twice that of the !Kung, French, or other seasonal workers' cultures. He centers the conversation around how hard these particular farmers worked, and how this equates to, the reader comes to find, Asians being better at math than other cultures or races for the sole purpose that they are more willing to try. The ability to try, care, and work desperately hard at one thing is essentially in their blood. Before my brain took the route to comprehending that correlation and deciding whether it actually made sense, before getting to the focal point of that chapter, I stayed pondering the differences between these cultures. To me, the pages read as though working long hours and trying insanely hard to perfect a task were synonymous to one another, and beyond that, better than the alternative of taking time to rest, relax, even spend time with family, as the quote above suggests.


So my essay prompt for the kids was born: "In today's culture, should we focus more on hard work or leisure?"


If I had to write this essay, I know I'd favor the side of leisure. Western work culture is intense. Comparing the modern workweek in the U.S. to those mentioned above, any person with a full time job can be expected to work anywhere from 2000 to 2400 hours in a year., using a little quick math. We are nestled somewhere in-between those farmers from the past, which may sound like a good sweet-spot. But toss in the modern working conditions which have hardly changed over the centuries, the high expectations, the unpaid overtime, and the incredibly wide disparities in pay scales among different careers...consider the markers of late-era capitalism we're under, and we may have a different story on our hands.


This is in no way suggesting that we have it worse than rice paddy farmers from the 1700's, or that quality of life has not gotten much, much better since the stories of those people. But what I'm hoping to lean toward in musing on this is that we do, indeed, put far too much emphasis on "pushing ourselves" to perform, to produce, to perfect. We are not machines no matter how badly we, our bosses, our workplaces, or our structures and systems want us to be. We are human. We should, absolutely, still be making time for dancing and entertaining and visiting family. You might be thinking - we do. We literally go out to dance, we go to concerts, we do fun things with our friends, and we see the people we love. We do still make time for it.


Yes. We do. But what I fear is happening more and more, as we continue to push ourselves toward some vague end goal (which I'll elaborate on in a bit), is that we are stretched so thin by the end of the night, or the end of the workweek, that we become too exhausted to enjoy these activities fully and presently. We accompany them with drugs and alcohol to take the stress off and hope to maximize the "fun" factor. We dissociate around friends and family, distracted by other parts of life. We say "fuck it" altogether to all these activities, too tired to engage at all. We instead isolate, hibernate, turn to the easy entertainment of technology or anything that does not require effort.


If you are reading up to this point and feel that none of this applies to you, I humbly applaud you. I want to know how you do it. Because although there is nothing at all wrong with wanting to work hard and become better (again, it's not my intention to speak as though there is something wrong with it), I find that most people I know, and I myself, struggle with the balance of work and leisure. If all effort is put into productivity and output, doing the best "job" possible day-in and day-out, burnout takes the reigns in one week or less, guaranteed. Maybe I have a small threshold, but that's my experience every single time. On the other hand, if I take all the emphasis away from my job and put it fully into my free-time, I feel guilty for not thinking or caring about work. Neither pole is sustainable. So what can I do?


What can we do?


Well...we create a sort of polarity to it, first and foremost. And what I mean by that is we feel into where we are right now (too work-focused, or too leisure-focused?) and we offset it. We do that with presence. Meaning, if we need a weekend out with friends, we go into it excited to be with our friends, laughing and catching up - not to get drunk and forget about work. If we've been doing a little too much of that, we ease back into work-mode by planning out small action steps. If we go all in on Monday, we know how we'll feel the rest of the week.


We make it work under the confines of capitalism, which bares down heavier on some than on others. We help each other out. Sometimes we need that help, but when you are in a season of abundance and growth, you have the responsibility of giving where and when you can. If you know people who are really struggling in their current conditions, and you are in your season, offer what you can to them. Caring for others in presence and authenticity, I'm learning, is one of the most medicinal modes of self-care. You read that right. Without the lens of external care, we are missing out on a massive part of what will actually heal and relax us internally. One way that toxic capitalism has worked its way into our individual psyches, whether we want to believe it or not, is by placing a widely disproportionate emphasis on the Self: "This life is about me. It's my world." Respectfully, baby...no. Your life is not you, your life surrounds you. How can you better nurture it than by giving?


I think by changing our interpretation of what it means to "produce" in this world, however slowly, we can begin to mend the relationship between work and leisure. One thing Gladwell fails to address in his book, really anywhere in it at all, is how directly our success relates to how we work. Are we using our skills to produce and perform, or are we using our skills to give, to gift, to improve? I do believe we can all shift to a mindset of giving, regardless of what our career is. So long as we are harnessing our individual gifts as people, we can "gift" them to others, or to projects, or to a greater good.


And when we are in our leisure, when we see our loved ones, perhaps we can "gift" our full presence. This is what the French peasants and !Kung tribespeople would do; granted, they scarcely had any obstructions or distractions from that time. But boiling all of this conversation down, I believe relearning presence may be the hidden lesson in reading about farmers and systems of the past. They were present in everything they did. They had drive, regardless of how many hours they worked. They had a mission. If they didn't fulfill that mission, they would starve. No time to think about leisure if there was no food on the table.


Which brings me back to us, today: we are largely safe and satiated. We can stay warm and fed. So what else are we working for? Mostly, in the "hustle" culture my freshmen and most young people in this society are being fed into, it's more money, more power, more material belongings, more of all that makes us appear wealthy and "successful." I don't know about you, but I always rejected the notion that success = money. Whenever I had to write essays about success in school, my response had more to do with feeling happy and loved and having what I needed. Maybe I'm misguided here, but I don't think that definition of success is taught very widely. In my experience of teaching young people, I see them reaching for grades that will get them into the best colleges so they can get the best jobs and make the best money. It's all about money. How do we tell them nicely that not all of them will get there, and then what?


What else is gonna make life worth it?


It seems to me that the greatest problem with our work and the cogs of our economy is that we push the idea of needing the best when just about everyone won't get it. But we're also taught to never settle. That makes it really, really hard to find a middle ground that works. It creates a human who is never satisfied, who always needs more. And that, in its circular nature, creates eternal disappointment. So I wish I could tell you right here and now to just drop all your past ideas of what it means to be successful and to work hard, because all of it is going to lead to disappointment. But I won't say that, because I'm going to pick up all my beliefs tomorrow, and continue to live by them, and continue to be disappointed by them...because I'm human.


Perhaps what I mean to say to you is that we have all the time in the world to disengage with these beliefs and to redefine success. We can get real about what's attainable, and make peace with the fact that it's likely not what we were sold when we were younger. We can free ourselves from disappointment, slowly, but only with presence. Eventually, we'll understand that love and safety and being taken care of, and having the ability to care for others, and balancing the many delicate areas of life as best we can, are all definitions of success more definitive and possible than "money." We will realize where our priorities need to shift in order to fully relax into life. We will stop hustling start crafting. We will stop producing and start giving.


This is both how we act in sacred rebellion to what's no longer working, and rise toward something much, much greater.


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