No Longer the Slave of Ambition…

A New Year’s Resolution Guide for 2015?
(c) 2014, Davd

Men, it does you more harm than good to look for a good job, work very hard, and make a lot of money, if you don’t get to enjoy both the job and the money. 20th-Century “North American culture” taught boys to study hard, work hard, and make good money so they could have pretty, good-housekeeping wives, and children who looked up to them—and in 1950, 1960, even 1970 for most men, the formula worked pretty well. Men went out and earned the money, wives spent it—at least fairly prudently, most of them—on the well-being of their children, their men, and also themselves. Marriage was a lifetime promise both ways, and the law supported that promise, including the lifetime aspect. The lifetime quality encouraged co-operation, and most families were indeed co-operative.

Does that read like ancient history in 2014? or a foreign culture? It’s where i grew up!—or more precisely, when.

In the later 1960s, men who had not chosen the conventional study-hard work-hard route, but had gone into sports or rock-and-roll instead, began becoming rich and famous much younger and more quickly than those who took the conventional route1. Star proficiency with a rock guitar, a hockey stick, or a baseball bat paid more, faster (and we should keep in mind, that those athletes and rock-musicians did study hard, and work hard, at their arts. It was more fun for them to study and work hard than it was for most of the diligent schoolboys; but there was serious, extensive study and practice involved. Choosing work you enjoy doing is an important lesson we can learn from them—and also from many successful men in quite different lines of work.)

Along with their success, as with the success of “movie stars” of both genders in the earlier 20th Century, came new kinds of gender relationships: More divorce, complete avoidance of marriage for many, even orgies. Women did not “make big money” in professional team sports, (quite a few did in skating, skiing, swimming, and tennis); but they definitely did in movies and music. The male-breadwinner pattern wasn’t part of these occupations.

Many of those now-famous “Baby Boomers”—born from 1946 through the 1950s—began to follow the “sexually liberated” ways of these famous hedonists. They did not completely leave-off the older ways, though; divorce still entailed ex-wives nearly always having custody of the children—who the ex-husbands were nearly always ordered to support2. Similar support obligations developed for the benefit of women who had not married their cohabitants, and their children—and of course, to the cost of the men who hadn’t married them and might or might not have fathered the children. Those persist to this day.

Margaret Mead is often quoted as saying “Never doubt that a small group of determined people can change the world. Indeed, nothing else ever has.” The Feminists who campaigned for abortion-on-demand, Affirmative Action for girls, and guilty-until-proven-innocent for men accused of sexual or violent assault against women, might be too many in total to call a “small group”, but they illustrate Mead’s premise well. They made themselves the voice of “womanhood” ….

I’ve written before about women’s legal, ideological, and educational advantages. They add up to gender inequality, with us male humans as the lesser gender. Back in “the 1950s”, women had legal advantages when it came to support and child custody in case of divorce, and men had social advantages when it came to looking for a job. There seemed to be a balance, close enough to even (that one couldn’t tell if it was or wasn’t perfectly so), with women specializing in the home and men specializing in the job. Men tended to spend a lot of their leisure time with other men and with boys; women, with other women and with girls.

Even as a boy in the ’50s, i wanted more men for company than women, so i spent a lot of time with my retired grandfather, who was more available than my employed father. He was a wise and a good man! A master electrician by trade, he had become an electrical engineer through self-improvement, (as best i could learn, with the company’s blessing and encouragement); and was on the team that invented railway air conditioning.

He was offered a fancy job in or near head office—and turned it down. His wife, my grandmother, was ill, and he wanted to be able to give extra time to her; his family and friends were on the West Coast; and he was about 60 years old when the offer came. Soon he retired on a modest pension, and was widowed—with a good conscience. He had given his Ella the best last years he could. Then he went back to work for a while, but not at Head Office, because he had friends and family where he was. And when i was old enough to spend weekends with him, i became one of a handful to a dozen priorities, that were more important to him than money.

He never really lacked for money. His life was organized frugally; he had a garden, a cherry tree, an apricot tree, and a big apple tree with two varieties: Yellow-Transparent for applesauce and King for cider. He bought new clothing, but not often; he wore the same familiar clothes for years (until he wore them out and replaced them) and fashion was something other people did. He heated with wood—sawmill slabs usually—and he had built his own house, so he owned it free-and-clear and had time to save some money before he retired. He hadn’t saved a huge amount, but he had something if a sudden expense came up. He helped out his neighbours, especially with the maintenance of their electrical gear, and they helped him out with their various skills. He was welcome in dozens of houses within walking distance—and until about the age of 80, he maintained his own car. I don’t ever recall him saying he was bored.

Such was my favourite man—my favourite human being—when i was young. One reason was that in his quiet way, he was happy nearly all the time. He had lived an honest, authentic life, with some failures but none shameful, some successes and none deceitful, and his story would bring him no especial shame when he had to meet his Maker. He ate well by his likes, he dressed warmly enough, his house was heated well enough, his friends were trustworthy and likable, and his welcome was sure in their homes.

He was wise indeed to refuse a fancy job in St. Paul, and keep instead, that quiet happiness.

I have sketched his story for several paragraphs because i believe that men today, despite our legal, educational, and ideological disadvantages, can claim such quiet happiness—though we can’t assure ourselves of a marriage until death-do-us-part, as readily as Gran’père was assured. His example is a good point of departure, a good specific case of a generally valid “life strategy”, for men who can admit that “it’s no longer a man’s world, if it ever was in our lifetimes”. It may even be a good basis, his life as example and his frugality and generosity as general strategy, for regaining gender equality and on a better foundation than we had in the 1950s.

One weekend when i was staying with Gran’père, he played a “country song”—in English, of course, this was the USA—that had the verse “O’ come you young fellers, with hearts brave and true: Don’t believe any woman; you’re beat if you do. Don’t trust any woman, no matter what kind; ’cause 21 years, boys, is a mighty long time.” That song was not about marriage: Marriage then had legal support. It was about betting your life, or any large part of your life, on the charms or the say-so of a woman. And while i can definitely remember i heard it once at Gran’père’s house, i strongly suspect i heard it a dozen times or more, along with “Arkansas Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw”. He loved his Ella, he loved his neighbours men and women in a lesser way, and his ties with them were made of better than money. The world where money ruled, he did not trust; and wisely not.

“Feminist successes” have destroyed the lifetime quality of marriage as a legal entity; and it follows from that destruction, that saving up wealth in what was the conventional family system half a century ago, is now folly. There are two ways at least, to adapt to the change: Depend less on wealth, and store the wealth differently. Gran’père relied less on money and more on friendships than most people today; and it worked well for him—because it worked well also for his friends.

His reliance on friendships can work today—with people who are competent to be friends, as Gran’père and most of his neighbours were. Not everyone is—nor was everyone in Gran’père’s day. Relying on friendships is not the same as starry-eyed Hippie pseudo-communalism; it is a social practice, process, and relationship that takes time, thought, and attention. Fortunately, it is part of human nature to rely on friendships; and the time, thought, and attention come naturally—if we choose to give them.

Wealth can be stored, so-to-speak, in churches, common lands, co-operatives, fraternal organizations, and forms of tenure that are not marketable. I’m not saying we should keep no wealth in banks or Credit Unions, nor even that we should keep no wealth in the form of gold or silver. I am saying that from what i hear and see, men who are out of deft keep far too much wealth in bank accounts, compared to these other forms. Churches, common lands, co-operatives, and fraternal organizations, are social forms we could use more than we do.3

In the past few paragraphs, i have used the word “wealth” in two ways that are somewhat inconsistent with one another—though both quite conventional in English-language writing. One usage refers to money and things that can readily be converted to money; the other, to things that have subsistence value. They overlap, but there are forms of money-wealth that lack subsistence value and things of subsistence value that are not money-wealth. One theme of Gran’père’s example, is that subsistence value is the more important; and money the more conducive to deceit.

Of course, we Christians were supposed to know this for two thousand years by now, ever since Jesus of Nazareth said, “Lay up for yourselves not treasures upon earth, where moths and rust corrupt them and thieves break in and steal; rather lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Many commentaries read “heaven” as referring to an afterlife. It might also be understood to refer to a better way of organizing life on earth. Either way, it refers to human co-operation rather than individualist greed; it refers to honesty rather than clever deceit, it refers to blessing rather than bureaucracy and contract law.

Men whose lives express those preferences, won’t be the slaves of ambition, and less often the slaves of court orders or bossy women. Only good women are likely to choose them. If no women choose some of them, they also can still live well.

I’m not trying to give you a pre-written New Year’s Resolution here. “No Longer the Slave of Ambition4 is a general outlook, or you might call it an attitude. I’ve given some examples, and if you give the idea some thought, you’ll probably notice some examples in your life and those of men you know. You’ll probably see ways you can make sensible, reasonable New Year’s Resolutions that move you away from being the slave of ambitions that aren’t really improving your life.

Notes:

 1. Not just a very few “top stars,” as in earlier generations, but hundreds and then thousands of them.

2. Fewer ex-husbands supported ex-wives as it became normal for adult women to have jobs.

3. Forms of tenure that are not marketable, have existed through history: Arguably, common lands are forms of tenure that are not marketable; co-operative holdings can be; and we would be wise to develop more 21st Century analogues. If a man is rejected by his wife or “cohabitant” for whatever bad reason, she may well get his money; but his co-op membership and his church and community-forest membership can only be cancelled by those communities acting en groupe.

4. The title of this little essay comes from the usual last verse of a Puget Sound folk song, “The Old Settler”:

No longer the slave of ambition,
I laugh at the world and its shams
while enjoying my happy condition
surrounded by acres of clams…

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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together “in peace and brotherhood” for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.

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