[cancer|culture] Employment and me and the American obsession with work

Interesting article here about American’s relationship to work, specifically in light of some of the recent Republican bitching about Obamacare and jobs. As if introducing broader economic choices and more personal freedom by eliminating healthcare-driven job lock and marriage lock were somehow a bad thing.

The article says:

You heard echoes of America’s Puritan roots in Republicans’ latest argument against Obamacare: Work is a irreducible part of who we are and anything that shifts incentives away from work is a step toward indolence and sloth. We might be a more secular nation in the 21st century, but we still generally establish our self-identity through our occupation, experts say. The Protestant work ethic prevails.

Speaking as someone who is no longer working, but living off SSDI and private disability insurance, um, yeah. This issue bothers me a lot. My basic cultural wiring is just as embedded in the poisonous cesspool of Calvinism as the rest of America. I was raised with a Southern-tinged Protestant tilt. I know in my bones that worldly success means God’s favor, that illness and poverty mean that one has failed morally. This is how our culture behaves, to our everlasting shame.

So now, being on disability as I am, I’m no longer working in the usual sense of the term. Being a cancer patient is certainly a full time job, but it doesn’t embrace what conservatives call “the dignity of work”. (Which, by the way, is something I think they do get right — there is a dignity in purposeful work. Where I diverge from my conservative friends is in the definitions and implications inherent in that phrase. The core idea I don’t have a problem with.) I can’t work, even if I wanted to. Yesterday’s lunchtime trip into DC underscored how shallow my physical and mental reserves really are. That’s why I’m on disability.

We as a society harshly judge people who don’t work (excepting of course the idle rich). Who are perceived to lack ambition or ability. Where does that leave me? I worked hard all my life, did pretty well financially and professionally, and now drowning in the seas of cancer at the twilight of my days, am sidelined.

Sometimes that bothers me intensely. I miss both the job I had — I enjoyed my profession and my workplace and my coworkers — and I miss being that kind of busy. I miss writing for part of my living. I miss being focused and economically productive. I am not poor, even now, but I am certainly ill. About as ill as one can be without actually being dead.

It’s not a sense of failure. More like something at the intersection of shame, regret and frustration. I wish I could retool my mental landscape and see this time of being on disability benefits as my version of honorable retirement, or as my compensation for the job of being a cancer patient and standing witness to the disease for myself and others. Maybe I’ll succeed in that yet. But so far there’s too much of that American Calvinism in me to just let go.

6 thoughts on “[cancer|culture] Employment and me and the American obsession with work

  1. Guess says:

    I don’t think they are referring to someone who is sick. There are plenty of republicans who who have had cancer, heart disease, and been unable to work. I have seen several family members (including my mother) die of cancer. Cancer is prevalent in my family. Your situation is completely and totally different.

    The Washington Post (hardly a rightwing blog) ran an article yesterday where they interviewed a woman who said she didn’t like her job. Her boss changed her role. So since she can get subsidies with obamacare decided she didn’t want to work anymore. There was another person who used the subsidies to allow him to quit his job and work with a family member on a startup business.

    The 2nd one I think is good for the country, the first one I don’t want to pay for. That being said, I think people who receive the subsidies should be forced to pay them back if they get on their feet and their businesses get going, etc… and pay it back with interest. If your business gets going and you are making a good income, (I dont know what the break point would be), but you should be required to start paying these subsidies back.

    I don’t agree with you that much politically, but I like your books and I think you are a good guy. I think if we met we would get along just fine.

    I also think there is a stark difference between the single mom forced to work at Walmart to support her kids and someone who chooses to go into business for themselves and do their dream job. Both need subsidies for medical care. The first one has no other options, the 2nd one made a choice. The 2nd one should have to pay it back in time when their business gets going or if it fails (and most do) and they go back to working for someone.

    BTW, Jay you are exactly what Republicans mean when they say ‘personal responsibility’. Writers are self employed small business owners. You are an entrepreneur. I think you are being too hard on them.

    For the record, I am a moderate.

    1. Jay says:

      Thank you, btw.

  2. C.E. Petit says:

    Feel free to consider your active (not passive) participation in your care and in Science as work. Of course, that’s not going to get around either social-meme disparagement or your own upbringing all that easily…

  3. Daveon says:

    I had a heated discussion with a friend on something related to this. I’m a fan of a minimum income system, it’s something both left and libertarians seem to agree on. But B was adamant that there was no way EVER he would accept paying people to do nothing. Even when I pointed out to him that he was already paying people to do nothing in the most expensive and inefficient way, he just couldn’t get his head out of the Calvinistic ‘must work for food’ place.

    Coming to the US from a country with healthcare provision, I find the US system a nightmare – and I certainly couldn’t, in my 40s, have started my own company if we hadn’t had my wife’s insurance. A terrible situation, just as destructive as forcing people to work just so they can afford it if they happen to get sick.

  4. I’ve been laid off seven times in departmental downsizing. At first, people felt for me, but the two times it took awhile to find work, people eventually thought I just wasn’t trying. They asked me how I afforded treatment for a medical condition I have, as though it were their business. They became shamed when I told them, “I’m going without treatment and not doing so well…” But you could see it: they wanted to hear that some program was giving me medicine for a pituitary disorder so they could judge me — that’s why they asked how I afforded treatment without work.

    One of the times I was unemployed for quite some time, I cared for my sister, who’d become disabled. I saw people’s view of her change over time. When she looked well, those who found out she didn’t work treated her like she simply wasn’t trying to find her next job. It wasn’t until the clear effects of chemotherapy were evident that things reverted back to pity. But then, when some people discovered she had no benefits (that “they” were paying for her treatment), things shifted back to resentment.

    Sadly, where she worked before she got sick didn’t have benefits. She was a file clerk and couldn’t afford any kind of benefits on her own. It’s so easy to look at somebody “taking” from others and feel smug about it, but when I think about all the jobs I had before I ever had one that offered benefits (or ever paid me enough to buy insurance on my own), I was always one accident or event away from being someone either going without, or feeling the shame my sister felt taking charity. Because you’re right: there’s a very Protestant view of work in this country.

    Add to that most of us being the descendants of immigrants who worked hard and scraped by to make ends meet, and it’s understandable why we value hard work. What I don’t understand is where we lost heart and began looking so hard at a minority deemed the norm (people actually cheating the system), that we assume anyone not working — many of whom would have loved a job with benefits that didn’t injure them — are just gaming the system.

  5. james williams says:

    Actually, I think we do judge the idle rich harshly, in a way- we just pretend that all rich people ‘earned’ their money from hard work and talent.

    I also believe in the dignity of work, but I don’t see much dignity in being forced to take a crap minimum wage job only because the alternative is to starve to death.

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