By Taja Lindley
Originally posted on the Strong Families blog
Know: these are lies.
In the U.S. we have been conditioned to work to survive, to get by, to pay bills, to stay afloat, living a day-to-day and paycheck-to-paycheck existence. We have been conditioned to work most of our lives so we can enjoy pleasurable activities in our free time, pre-determined holidays, limited vacation and, if we’re lucky, during retirement. The U.S. “reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love.”
Listen closely: when policymakers, public figures and the media talk about the current status of the economy and high unemployment, the discussion revolves around jobs. As it should: people are looking for work. But when the narrative around jobs is unconcerned with how work connects to the passion, purpose, ambitions and talents of workers, our economy does a disservice to our humanity and our creativity. The conversation reinforces a narrative that implies that any job will do. What about purpose? What about passion? Yes: we’ve got to feed our families, we’ve got to keep roofs over our heads, and there are bills to be paid. Survival is a primary need.
But we are so much more than our basic needs. In a world of haves and have nots, with widening disparities in wealth and income, the travesty of our global economy makes pleasurable work challenging to access. An economy organized in this way serves only the elite and powerful, whereby the majority of workers are employed and/or exploited to fill the vision and pockets of those who are already in power.
In short: systemic inequality makes pleasurable work more accessible for some than others.
As a policy and research fellow at a grassroots economic justice organization, I witnessed first-hand how this played out for long-term unemployed people on public assistance in New York. The sentiment that “any job will do” pushed many people on welfare into low-wage jobs with few (if any) benefits, and with little to no room for upward mobility. Case-workers were generally uninterested in helping people find the professional development and training programs that could help them move into the careers of their choice, opting instead to fulfill short-term goals of job-placement. Many case-workers were informed by stereotypes of the “undeserving poor,” their job responsibilities informed by public policies concerned with getting people off public assistance, not into satisfying work.
In her essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde explains that the erotic is neither frivolous nor a luxury. She defines the erotic as:
a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings… an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing it’s power, in honor and in self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.
Erotic autonomy, as suggested by Audre Lorde in her essay, is to live a fully embodied life where we are living our purpose and passions, and creating from our unique talents with an undeniable feeling of satisfaction. The erotic is the lens we use to scrutinize our choices so that we make decisions that support the fullest expressions of who we are.
So when we talk about the erotic as it applies to our work, it is about (re)claiming power over our lives and how we operate in this economy. It is a radical notion that values the talents, creativity and contributions of everyone, even those who have been marginalized and deemed unworthy of pleasurable work. Work that satisfies our internal desires and financial needs.
Wealth and purpose-driven hustles are not mutually exclusive. Imagine how different our world would be if people did work they were excited about, and not what they thought they had to do to get by. How might our economy change? What would be the meaning of work? How might there be more support for innovation and entrepreneurship, even amongst historically and currently marginalized and exploited communities?