Bliss Point


Did I mention I like Star Trek?

Welcome to Sisko's Creole Kitchen, an establishment that epitomizes the economics of the 24th century, when technological innovations work hand-in-hand with fully enlightened attitudes toward work and leisure to liberate human beings from wage slavery. People are no longer locked into drudgery by the need to earn a living wage, for all essential human needs are provided by society. Money is a dim memory, as anything one wants or needs can be instantly replicated. Individuals are freed up to follow their true vocations, whether that means enlisting in Star Fleet to explore the galaxy or opening a five-star restaurant in New Orleans.

This doesn't mean that anyone can just do exactly what he or she wants. Joseph Sisko, I assume, prefers serving authentic dishes made from scratch, rather than replicated to identical perfection, which means someone still has to catch the crabs for his kitchen, and someone else has to cook it. I expect there's the same climb up the culinary ladder one would find in any 21st century restaurant, just as in Starfleet one must ascend the ranks through education, experience, and merit. And if Joseph Sisko mismanages his restaurant, and the food quality goes down, then demand will go down with it. Much of what keeps our contemporary economy ticking, then, is still in place; the only thing missing is the survival imperative. If Sisko's goes out of business, his staff will have to find work elsewhere, his patrons will have to find another restaurant to meet their Creole needs, but no one will starve or be evicted.

It sounds utopian, pie-in-the-sky, idealistic, naïve. We're so accustomed to the profit motive that the very idea of a society that functions without it is discordant. The Communist experiments of the 20th century all failed, after all: collective farms underproduced, five-year-plans never adequately predicted demand, and the only thing that kept China from going under was the reintroduction of competition to the economy. Even on the micro scale, barter economies assume both supply and demand.

And yet, isn't this what we're preparing our young people for with career education? We give them interest inventories and aptitude batteries, point them toward work that meets both their passion and their talent, usually with little regard for whether there is a genuine demand for that work. Ideally, every person should be able to find personal satisfaction in a profession for which he or she is both suited and equipped. It may start humbly--mechanics pumping gas, chefs flipping hamburgers, sound engineers sweeping up the studio--but there should be a climbable ladder leading to vocational actualization.

Sadly, that is where our world and the world of Star Trek part company. Vital work that individuals find fulfilling is subject to market whims, and menial work can be a plateau that never leads to anything but working poverty.

Case in point: I worked diligently toward a career in music education, and found work doing it in the mid-1980s, then again in the last decade when I came back to it--only to have it pulled out from under me as a collapsing real estate market dragged down every other part of the American economy. When people lose jobs, their taxes shrink; with a smaller tax base, the government can't afford to pay for vital services, including education; with less funding from the government, school boards cut budgets, eliminating positions deemed nonessential, increasing class sizes, laying off teachers. Laid off teachers can no longer contribute to the demand economy, which means reduced markets, more lay-offs, even less of a tax base, a seemingly endless cycle of cutting.

Eventually, the economy comes back, and bit by bit, the social infrastructure is reconstructed. I'm now fully employed as an elementary music teacher, but I had to wait four years for this job to finally arrive. I've continued to be active in the Portland Orff Schulwerk Association, and completed both my second and third levels of certification in this approach, during those lean years when I was cobbling together an income from unemployment, private lessons, a church job, performing, and part-time secondary music teaching. It was rewarding work, and it paid the bills, but it wasn't what I was called to do.

The proof of this is how I feel today: trapped on the couch, writing this blog post, my compromised immune system keeping me from where I really want to be, back at that school, teaching those children. I've been preparing myself for this job for a decade, and I can't wait to get back to it. Working at Banks High School for the last two years, I rarely begrudged a day at work, but it never thrilled me the way heading over to Scott Elementary does. The US economy permitting, I will joyously continue doing this work until I retire, sometime between 2026 and 2030--or, if someone has invented a longevity treatment, long after that.

If it weren't for the need to pay bills, have health insurance, and put money in my pension, I would do this work for free. That's the ideal vocation: I am so strongly called to do this that I'd gladly do it without compensation. That's the utopian world of Star Trek. I've found my professional bliss.

I'm lucky in this--or I'm finally finding the reward for working so hard toward it. For the last four years as I continued going to Orff workshops, I was seeing college students, music education majors, fresh-faced, eager to enter this field. It was tempting to take them aside and tell them they should play it safe with a second major, make sure they had something to fall back on when they graduated and found all the elementary music jobs gone. At the same time, I heard from my still-employed colleagues about how their positions had been consolidated, how some of them were seeing over a thousand students. One had his position given to a laid-off high school teacher with seniority, but was able to fall back on a classroom endorsement and stay in his school, teaching first grade. It's been a dark time for my profession, and even though the clouds are lifting, I doubt that it will be the last.

A news story shared by one of my Facebook friends, a former minister like myself, reminded me that it is not just education that felt the sting of the recession. United Methodism, faced with ever-shrinking numbers and income, is finally considering dismantling one of its signature features: the itinerant appointment system. Churches too small to afford their own full-time pastors, or even to share a pastor with another church, are eager to employ lay pastors, retired pastors, even volunteers who will do the work for less or even no compensation. I knew such a pastor during my career: a retired industrial chemist who received a part-time salary, but would gladly have done the work for free. If resources permit, I see no reason why such appointments should not be encouraged. If bliss can be found in service, and one's material needs are already met, then by all means find that bliss.

Sadly, most of us are in no position to practice our vocations for free. We're one check away from insolvency, and that's before we even think about putting more money away for retirement.

So I will count my blessings that I can continue to follow my bliss, and be compensated for doing so, looking forward to the time when everyone can be like Joseph Sisko, able to pursue their vocations without giving a second thought to how they're going to pay off their student loans, buy a house, put their kids through college, or prepare for retirement; because an enlightened society has got all that stuff covered.

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