I’ve recently taken to reading every morning, and one author I’ve enjoyed lately is Donna Tartt. After finishing her award-winning novel, The Goldfinch, I was inspired to look up interviews she had done about the book. I came upon an interview she did in 2014 with Charlie Rose, in which Rose asked her what “the good life” meant to her. She responded, “The two great salvations: love and work.”
Her answer stuck with me for days after. Despite its straightforwardness, the contention that love and work were all you needed to be happy upset me. I finally realized that while it’s true that love and work are the basis of a good life, we live in a world designed around neither.
bell hooks is another great author I’ve been reading, in particular her book All About Love: New Visions. In it, hooks argues that “lovelessness has become the order of the day” — in other words, that while American culture and media is obsessed with love, it is the norm to embody not love but rather control, power, manipulation, fear, and exploitative self-interest.
Erich Fromm, the author of The Art of Loving, reflects this sentiment, saying, “The principle underlying capitalist society and the principle of love are incompatible.”
This is because love is necessarily collective and communal in nature. Both Fromm and psychologist M. Scott Peck posit love as the expansion (as opposed to the sacrifice) of the self and one’s own aliveness so that they extend out to others to be used for their growth and betterment.
Unfortunately, American culture (i.e. Western capitalism and imperialism) is hyper individualist in nature, which is the antithesis of collectivism and, therefore, love. We are conditioned to see others first as our competition if not our subordinate or threat. Even those we say we love we lie to and hide ourselves from. We thrust conditions onto our care and respect, all in the name of self-interest.
However, treating others with lovelessness isn’t in our self-interest at all, as it starves us of the connection and satisfaction that honest and open love brings. Because love requires an expansion of self, it is in our better interest to embrace love, not reject it.
The insistence that our society is love-deficient isn’t a difficult argument to accept; after the last five years, it’s easy to see how commonplace fear, hatred, and exploitation have become. However, to say our society isn’t designed around work is more outrageous. After all, the 40 hour+ workweek is the norm, and we are conditioned to view our career as our primary identity or life focus.
Work, in the way I believe Tartt meant, is labor that yields an outcome of progress. You can see the fruits of your labor, even if you are not the beneficiary. You spend a day painting a house, then the house is painted. You spend a day writing, then you have something to be read. This kind of work is fulfilling; it makes you feel productive and responsible, both of which bolster self-esteem.
The problem is that capitalism is designed around profit, not work. The greatest thing to be is a capitalist, someone who owns in lieu of working. Because profit necessitates the exploitation of labor, satisfying and dignified work is a rare find — especially when most useful jobs are underpaid and unnecessarily humiliating, and others are what anthropologist David Graeber deems “bullshit jobs” which are bureaucratic, meaningless, or don’t produce the visible productive outcome I previously mentioned.
The Personal Pursuit of Fulfillment
Luckily, we do not have to live our lives in accordance with the sociological structures that exist around us. Not only do we have the ability to take control over our own lives, it’s our personal responsibility to actively hold ourselves accountable for the way we choose to live. With presence and focus, we can build a life for ourselves filled with both love and work, regardless of our circumstances. We can break generational trauma cycles, we can change career paths, and those of us who can’t can choose to recognize the simple joys in our jobs, take pride in doing our jobs well, or develop a sense of fulfilling work outside of income generation (like through homemaking or a hobby).
Every day, we make choices about how we’re going to be alive. Choosing to create a life worth loving is one of the greatest acts of resistance against cycles of abuse and systems of exploitation there is. But if we choose instead to live passively, to forgo the pursuit of active participation in love and work, we starve ourselves of life-affirming fulfillment.