What does it mean to make a living?
“Hate was just a failure of imagination.” — Graham Greene
Re-appropriate is a word that I stole from my friend David Dark. He’d stolen it from a guy named Jeff Tweedy. It’s a good word to steal. In fact, of all the words I’ve stolen in my lifetime I feel the least remorse for lifting this one. Re-appropriate: to seize and reassign. It’s very definition encourages a theft of sorts. I suppose all of language works like that: taking anonymous words and making them our own. This enlightened practice of re-appropriation is unique to the human experience: We adapt within our situation to make the most of it. All other creatures are defined by their innate abilities, mostly untaught. A worm is not taught how to crawl. A chameleon is not taught how to change colors. A rabbit, a horse, a spider- these creatures are defined by themselves and their intrinsic giftings. We human beings are not like this: we bend, we learn, we invent, we change. Humanity has been making herself up all along. Making life. Making a living.
I would like to re-appropriate the phrase “making a living” to mean something larger than accumulating net worth in an online bank account. I’d like to suggest that ATM receipts and mortgage payments have very little to do with living or life or making life worth living. In my personal struggle to make a living, I’ve found that true success has very little to do with income or comfort. In fact, it seems to me that inconvenience, hardship and discomfort are my best teachers. It’s as though these horrible, wonderful moments where I realize my own limitations are almost exclusively the only ones that matter. So when I’m brave enough, I chase these awkward moments down. I write songs about them. I put my scattered thoughts online. Heck, I even seek therapy from time to time. Love, dreams, confessions, God, women — these are dreadful, awe-inspiring mysteries to me. They put a funny taste in my mouth. They give me scrapes and scars. And stories.
The best stories often come from inconvenient and uncomfortable places.
Like a newborn child, real life comes out painfully, awkwardly, delicately. As a pearl is formed only when the oyster is agitated with sand, the most important moments in my life were born out of friction. The art comes from the awkward ache. The knot in my stomach usually teaches me more than comfort ever could. The sculptor’s chisel carves away at the block to bring something new into being. In the same way, we hammer away at the world we’re given to bring something new into being. We re-appropriate the past and present to create the future — breath by breath.
We are making our living on a dying planet, born into a world of contingencies.
Ours world is torn to shreds by the greed of men, the intolerance of our times, and the wars that rage on in the world around us. Every day our bodies are decaying. On the day of our birth, our death becomes an eventuality. Yes, the world we’ve been given is under the dark shadow of these struggles. We’re born into the fight. It’s as though we’re armed only with a dream. So it’s no surprise that our hopes are dulled on the battlefield of institutionalized cynicism. In this world of death and taxes we might even begin to question whether dreams are appropriate. Against the backdrop of despair, we are tempted to abandon the struggle of hope and accept dead cash instead. We’re tempted to believe that “the real world” could never be anything other than it is.
But isn’t “the real world” largely what we humans have made it? Let us remind ourselves that the “financial security” that we are slaving for is anything but secure. Let’s remember that this peace of mind recently went bankrupt. Yes, these supposedly stalwart investment institutions were bailed out by a government that faces an insurmountable debt. Let’s take it even further and recall that none of us has any control or security over the day of our birth or death. And in this context I believe that “making a living” cannot be tied to the paycheck alone. Rather we make the real world of tomorrow today. Moment by blessed moment, we’re making a living…
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