Over at a writer’s blog (I confess, I’m stalking them, I’m not an author!) Dave Freer uses what sounds an awful lot like an aphorism as his blog title: An idle soul shall suffer hunger. Now the blog post in question is about production volume, but what really struck me was the title. Sarah Hoyt over on her blog has a take on that Appalachian poverty piece which is definitely worth reading and that was rattling around in my head at the time, too.
But my personal idleness has been something I’ve been pondering for a while. I’m a procrastinator, and I’m lazy, and I’m not as self-disciplined as I’d prefer to be, but every so often when I’m prowling the internet for intellectual stimulation and there’s nothing new on my favorite blogs (I forgive Sarah for cutting back since I’d rather have her books!) I just find that I have to get up and go DO SOMETHING PRODUCTIVE instead of chasing down a rabbit-trail of something vaguely interesting. Even if it is just cleaning the toilets or washing dishes. Because if I’m too idle for too long, I get unhappy – hungering for something that all the modern diversions of internet and television can’t fill. That’s why, when I watch TV, it’s generally as “background noise” to some other thing that I’m doing. It’s a rare show that can capture my full attention. If only there were something that would read the internet to me – reading and multitasking does not really work out well!
But I think that most everyone has that hunger – beyond the physical hunger of “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” – that has to be fulfilled by accomplishment and the pride and self-esteem that comes from accomplishment. Sure, sometimes doing household chores feels like pushing the rock of Sisyphus (thanks, entropy!) but that’s just life, and letting myself get frustrated by that sort of thing is pretty much the height of futility. Whining doesn’t do me any good long-term. (That doesn’t stop me from whining sometimes, though!)
I think one of the things I’m going to be trying to get a handle on in the new year is prioritizing things – a lot of times I’ll have to ask myself not “What am I in the mood to do right now?” but “What needs to be done to keep life running smoothly?” or “What obligations do I have to others that I need to fulfill?” (That last one is going to be the most challenging. I’m an introvert raised by an introvert, who hung out with other Odds in college. The whole “social” thing is a little shaky still, and the thing I’m most likely to procrastinate in order to clean toilets or wash dishes.)
I think a good framework is the “cliché” Proverbs 31 woman. Economic activity is a little different nowadays, but the basics are all there: she keeps her house running smoothly, she makes sure everybody is clothed appropriately, and also provides things of value to other people both through work and charity. So that’s what I want to work on: keeping my house in good order, making sure I’m dressed well (and giving J a few pointers now and then, but he’s not the one with no innate fashion sense), and providing things of value to others. Huh. This suddenly turned into a New Year’s Resolution post, didn’t it?
But going back to the idea rattling around in my head – that even if idleness doesn’t lead to physical hunger, as in the case of welfare recipients and stay-at-home spouses (or older children with no jobs) who are provided for beyond whatever employment income that they earn, idleness can lead to a hunger of the soul. Sure, there might be some people who are content to be “idle” and laze around all day watching television, but I doubt there are all that many of them. And I think that’s where a lot of the criminal behavior of the poor comes from. The people in poor rural counties with no jobs who start making meth, for example, are accomplishing something and producing something that other people value… it’s just not a good thing. There’s no employment out there, and with welfare there’s no reason to move (especially if they’re living on ancestral property) and so I expect the vast majority are actually not idle, but doing things below the radar, which is something Sarah brings up. (They know what the journalists are expecting to see… so they give them what they expect so they’ll go away faster.)
But that hunger of the soul… people can do dangerous things to try to fill it. And that’s one reason why I think welfare – other than true “crisis” welfare – is so damaging. Pay people for being idle? Oh, they’ll make sure to appear idle so as to continue to receive the welfare. And some of them may be profoundly damaged and actually become idle – but most? They’re going to be filling that hunger with something. Drugs. Alcohol. Gangs. Serial relationships with abusive partners. Pets. Children.
It’s the nature of humanity to strive for survival against the environment; to exist in a tribal structure and win shelter and sustenance from nature. Anything that gets in the way of that, without replacing it with an equivalent (computer programmers can’t eat code, but working for a living at something other than farming still counts as winning shelter and sustenance) is profoundly inhumane.
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm likes to talk about respecting the “pigness of the pig” and the “cowness of the cow.” What the welfare state gets wrong, is that its “compassion” doesn’t respect the humanness of the poor. As Kevin Williamson replied to Paul Krugman – “The real question is whether we are going to think of poor people as pets.” But even pet owners, to be humane and responsible, need to be aware of and meet their pets’ needs beyond the mere physical requirements of food and shelter!