In numerous ways, I have come to observe that people think something is more worthwhile if it is difficult to achieve, or even more strangely, if it is painful to achieve. Additionally, if ‘the norm’ is to do one type of thing and someone comes up with an easier thing that achieves broadly the same goals, people caught up in the norm will not leap to celebrate and change their lives, rather they will mock and criticise the person who has found an easier way and enjoin them to come back to the hard way.
The first example I observed referred to jobs and working. Since I was homeless, jobless and drifting I had opportunities to hang out with other people in similar situations. I visited some squats, and I was struck by the industry of the people living in them. Everyone was either studying, volunteering, fixing things or making art. Their mental health levels seemed very high. When I was on a protest against the current government’s austerity measures, the most common shout hurled at the people protesting was “get a job”.
If the intent of this request was “be a useful member of society” then the speaker is simply wrong to think that these people were not doing so. I think, however that the speaker did not desire the person to be a useful member of society, they actually did expect the protester to get a job. And not because that’s the ethically correct thing to do, but because everyone else ‘has’ to, everyone hates it, and it’s not fair if some people can get away with not having to. Of course the penalty of not having to is living in insecure, frightening housing circumstances with few utilities or comforts, in all weathers whilst living outside of a society so frightened of them that they are actively legislated against as a group.
It seems to me that creating some kind of system of very basic shelter for extremely low rent would enable many others to be able to not have a job. This may involve changing what we value in our society (such as art and caring for others), which of course would enable the emancipation of disadvantaged groups, particularly women. But no, if ‘the norm’ is to toil and suffer, then we all should, according to popular wisdom.
I feel there are echoes of this argument when people question me about non-monogamy. I often hear the assertion (or its implication) that a non-monogamous person is not truly committed to their relationships or is in some way losing a level of depth or intimacy by having more than one partner. I normally reply that time is a factor, so it might take longer to reach the same level of intimacy with one of my partners as a monogamous couple might do (although, I work very few hours and spend much more time with my partners and friends than people who are full-time workers).
After this argument of taking slightly more time, the defender of monogamy normally has a perplexed look on their face because they want to put into words the feeling that exclusivity is somehow more committed. I think it’s because they are trying to indicate that monogamy involves sacrifice. Monogamy involves shutting off certain parts of yourself and your life, in favour of the relationship (this can happen in poly too, of course, but we’ll continue to examine the point). If you are willing to do that for a person, you are ‘committed’, you must ‘really’ love the person. And this sacrifice somehow gives you something in the relationship. Well, if this psychological state gives you other benefits, then perhaps, but I don’t believe personal sacrifice on its own confers any specific benefits, it just feels like it should because it is hard, and painful. People often believe that if something is hard or painful, it must be better than something that isn’t.
Not only that, but when people are presented with a better way of doing something that really is easier and less painful, they become angry or resentful. There are several psychological factors in play which create this response including: embarrassment, attachment to the past, resistance to change and feeling their efforts have been devalued. It is much easier to reject the new idea than change their own.
Indeed, psychological factors can go far deeper than that. I was raised in a religion that encouraged extreme sacrifice in the present for a promised rosy post-apocalyptic future. I think this particular religion is successful because of the difficulty of the present-day sacrifices, rather than in spite of them. Pain and suffering seem worthy because they seem real. Like the self-harmer, many people feel tossed around by whirlwinds of emotion, hormones, depression or even imagination and seek to ground themselves in reality with pain.
In addition, the matrix of protestant work ethic perpetual expansion capitalism implies that anyone who toils will receive their just reward, which unfortunately is simply not true. Toil and pain for its own sake will not automatically earn benefits.
Some things are hard and painful but also have a tangible benefit, like working hard at a skill or sport, or (perhaps) putting money in a high interest savings account, but the level of difficulty or pain involved in a project does not automatically indicate its worthiness or utility. As with anything, a quick check on your assumptions about things is often a worthwhile exercise.
Some things are really easy, and fun. Some things that seem difficult don’t have to be. In the affluent parts of the world in particular, life isn’t pain. Life isn’t hard. Don’t bring down the people who have found a better way; copy them.