This morning, I’m thinking again about what I’d do if I had no need to earn money. It’s easy to give a fanciful answer involving charter jets, mansions, luxury goods, or endless cruise ship vacations. It’s easy to make some equally unlikely scenario involving sainthood: opening a homeless shelter or volunteering to save the rainforest.
I fear the true answer is much more prosaic. I would lay around the house, work on its landscaping, watch porn, write a little, and worry a lot. If the past few months are any indication of what I would do if I didn’t need to work for money, the possibilities, I fear, amount to a vast waste of energy. On the whole, I’m not sure I could recommend this way of living to anyone.
The caveat is that I do not know if I need to earn money through working. I may have enough money not to work, but I am not sure. When I first came back from the monastery and Pittsburgh Zen Center in December, I assumed that if I did not quickly find work, I would end up destitute, possibly living under a bridge somewhere. There were no facts to back up my assumption; rather, this was the only thing I had ever imagined happened to people who weren’t employed.
First I worked, ever so briefly, for a firm that hung Christmas lights. Then I started to rent out a bedroom through AirBnB. For several months, I drove about twenty hours a week for the ridesharing service Uber, until the late nights of ferrying drunks around ate into my sense of well-being as well as my social life. Since then, my only sources of income are rent from a duplex building I own in trendy East Nashville and whatever I take in from AirBnB in the house I own and live in here in North Nashville.
So this morning, I’m wondering if I have no need to earn money, and if I don’t, what I will do with myself. I’m also worried that I do need to earn money, but don’t know how to get a job any more. Especially worrisome is the email from my hidebound former employer asserting that while I’d done an exceptionally good job, “it is not permissible” to write me a reference. This wondering and worrying takes up a lot of energy, but it’s purely mental and emotional. It doesn’t wear me down like stacking things in a warehouse would, or even answering the phone in an office. Wondering and worrying, however, does appear to by my current occupation, just the same as if I were a warehouse worker or receptionist.
I wonder if the risks of underemployment for me are serious, but don’t relate to living under a bridge. While I’ve been able to make it on my meagre monthly income, perhaps I’m risking going deeper in debt for eventualities like medical bills, dental work, and repairs on property. There is also saving for retirement, which I’m not presently doing. And then there is the risk of being disconnected, which is the experience of anomie.
Most people work, work for money, and work for money outside the home. Many of our social conventions are based on the assumptions that everyone has a job. There are weekends and prime-time television and avoiding rush-hour traffic. There is the reflexive habit of people in the US to start a conversation with an new acquaintance by by asking “So— what do you do?” A person who is not employed for money outside the home is out of place. I’ve felt like I’m no longer a part of the social fabric of my community. At parties, I don’t have the correct answer to small talk. I’m a person who cannot account for himself. And I dare not date! I am out of place, beyond other peoples’ ken for understanding another.
So, what would I do if I didn’t have to work for money? In fact, no one does, but the consequences of not working for money vary based on privilege. I’ve only recently discovered that the consequences for me do not entail immediate homelessness and destitution. I guess that means that I don’t have to work for money forty hours a week every week until I retire? It’s confusing.
In my case, experience shows that if I didn’t work for money, what I would do is worry. I’d also distract myself with the Internet in its endless naked glory. I’d work on the garden a bit, write a few essays, work on craft projects, and sometimes go out dancing. But then I’d get back to my full-time occupation, which is, at the moment, worrying and wondering. Yes, having thought about it, that’s what I’d do if I didn’t have to work. I’d say the experience certainly clarifies why people have jobs.
So— what do you do?