Something to Read: Ricky Gervais, Wendell Berry

This blog has been having a holiday because, well because it’s the holidays! But seriously, I am busy reading and writing. Reading stuff on a new Kindle. And on the web. Writing a bit on the side and thinking a lot. Here are a few pieces that I particularly liked.

From the UTNE Reader, a piece by John de Graaf, titled, “Less Work, More Life.”

As productivity increases, we seem faced with a choice between environmental disaster or massive unemployment. Unless, of course, we slow down by reducing working hours and sharing the work. Half a century of economic growth has not increased our happiness. More free time might well do so. It will certainly improve our health.

Americans will exercise more, sleep more, garden more, volunteer more, spend more time with friends and family, and drive less. We need full employment, but not by returning to the unhealthy overwork of recent decades As Derek Bok puts it in his new book, The Politics of Happiness:

“If it turns out to be true that rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier, as much of the recent research suggests, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our gross domestic product?”

. . .

Reducing work hours and sharing available work is essential for our families, health, economic security, and the environment.

It’s time to get on with it.

Wendell Berry has a different take on work. He wrote that is response to de Graaf’s article. I think it is an awesomely good article.

It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the “left” or the “right.” Neither side, so far as I know, has produced a reliable distinction between good work and bad work. To shorten the “official workweek” while consenting to the continuation of bad work is not much of a solution.

The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.

Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.

But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?

And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?

And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?

More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?

And why should you not be affronted by some official decree that you should do less of it?

A useful discourse on the subject of work would raise a number of questions that Mr. de Graaf has neglected to ask:

What work are we talking about?

Did you choose your work, or are you doing it under compulsion as the way to earn money?

How much of your intelligence, your affection, your skill, and your pride is employed in your work?

Do you respect the product or the service that is the result of your work?

For whom do you work: a manager, a boss, or yourself?

What are the ecological and social costs of your work?

If such questions are not asked, then we have no way of seeing or proceeding beyond the assumptions of Mr. de Graaf and his work-life experts: that all work is bad work; that all workers are unhappily and even helplessly dependent on employers; that work and life are irreconcilable; and that the only solution to bad work is to shorten the workweek and thus divide the badness among more people.

The point then is to do good work — where good is defined by the person concerned. As the Moody Blues’ song goes, “Do what makes you happy, do what you know is right.” I know many people who work like that, and for them there is no contradiction between working and living. They don’t have to seek a balance between work and life since their life is in balance.

On a different note, here’s a piece by Ricky Gervais in the Wall Street Journal: A Holiday Message. (Thanks to JP for the link.) He explains why he does not believe in the monotheist god. When he lost his belief in Jesus, he found lots of gifts.

The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution -– a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us –- with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.

But living an honest life -– for that you need the truth. That’s the other thing I learned that day, that the truth, however shocking or uncomfortable, in the end leads to liberation and dignity.

As expected he got a lot of flack for that piece from religious people. The WSJ asked him to respond to some in a follow-up article. At one point in the article, when writing about his mother, he started crying. Here’s that bit.

How do you plan on celebrating Christmas?

Eating and drinking too much with friends and family. Celebrating life and remembering those that did, but can no longer.

They are not looking down on me but they live in my mind and heart more than they ever did probably. Some, I was lucky enough to bump into on this planet of six billion people. Others shared much of my genetic material. One selflessly did her best for me all my life. That’s what mums do though. They do it for no other reason than love. Not for reward. Not for recognition. They create you. From nothing. Miracle? They do those every day. No big deal. They are not worshiped. They would give their life without the promise of heaven. They teach you everything they know yet they are not declared prophets. And you only have one.

I am crying as I write this.

It usually gets me this time of year. That’s what’s special about Christmas. It’s when you visit or reminisce about the ones you love. And reflect on how lucky you are. How they helped shape you. I remember the first time my mum took me to see a movie. I’d never been to a cinema before. I can still remember the place to this day. Everything seemed carpeted. The floors, the walls, everything. I had sweets and Pepsi and the biggest screen in the world, I thought. I was blown away. I lived a life in a couple of hours. When I thought Baloo was dead I was sobbing uncontrollably but trying to hide it. My mum was consoling me but didn’t seem as distressed as me. Then when it turned out that Baloo was still alive I was f—ing euphoric.

But it made me think. On the way home I asked my mum how old I’d be when she died. “Old,” she said. “Will I care?” I asked worried about my far off future feelings. She wasn’t sure what to say. She knew I wanted the answer “no” in some ways but as usual she chose honesty. “Yes,” she said. “But it won’t happen for a very long time.” That was good enough for me.

Ricky is a funny man. In a post in April 2008, I had embedded a video of his explaining the bible. YouTube has removed that one due to copyright reasons but the same content is available on YouTube anyway. Here it is. Enjoy. And happy new year.

Author: Atanu Dey


3 thoughts on “Something to Read: Ricky Gervais, Wendell Berry”

  1. Thanks Atanu for sharing these refreshing pieces. Feels good to read at the start of the year. Wish you a very happy new year.



  2. as much as you may want to say it, Ricky is an atheist. If you have the comprehension capacity of a 8 year old, you will understand that “he does not believe in the monotheist god” (as you want your audience to believe) and in the same breath, he does not believe in god(s) at all.

    how convenient it is to bend the truth, huh?


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