Ceaseless Toil

This morning, the BBC newsfeed displayed by my Android phone carried an article about long life.  How it may soon be possible to live beyond 150-200 years on a regular basis.  Really?  OK.  But who’d want to?

Truth be told, human life isn’t all that hot.  For one thing, we humans are not robust creatures.  Compared to lions, deer, bears and moose, we are flimsy and effete.  We have no hair or fur to protect from the elements.  Our teeth cannot easily chew grass and seeds, nor tear off hunks of meat.  Walking as we do on two feet, we cannot flee predators nor chase down prey.  Ah, but we do have opposable thumbs and brains, so . . .  So we built artificial fur, teeth, hooves and all the rest and called it civilization.

When you come right down to it, the only thing civilization has to recommend it is medical care.  My old friend, Dan, and I were talking one day about houses and he observed that, were it not for women, most men he knew would be just as happy living in a tent.  After think about it for a few seconds, I said, “Why, Dan, you’re right.”  Who, in their right minds, wouldn’t love to arise only when slept out, sit gazing at the morning for as long as one likes, live off of low-hanging fruit and serendipitous finds, and spend the day banging the stuffings out of his or her one-true-love?  But to make such a life enjoyable, you must have medical care; someone and someplace to drain abscesses, set broken bones, stitch-up wounds and treat bites from loathsome insects.  As far as civilization goes, that’s about it.

I once read an article in Scientific American in which the author pointed out that in examining the bones of pre-civilized peoples, he found that baring misadventure, they routinely lived into their mid-seventies.  When they finally did die, they did so in full possession of their teeth and their bones were strong and straight.  It was only after the introduction of agriculture — and the permanent settlements agriculture requires (i.e., civilization) — that people went to wrack and ruin and died early.  Not only did our “civilized” fore-bearers die of diseases passed around in their foetid and squalid little villages, they died from malnutrition, thanks to their single crop mono-cultures.  It should be noted they also died from overwork, for it was they themselves and not animals who pulled the plows, plucked the weeds and crushed their spines carrying water buckets to irrigate the land.

Flash forward to the twenty-first century.  Though we have homes with central heating and hot water, as well as tons of high-tech goodies to amuse us, the average human’s existence is still one of ceaseless toil.  Consider the house: How much of it do you really enjoy?  After all, most of your day is spent in toil just to pay for it.  At sunrise, you get to enjoy it for, oh, maybe an hour as you rush around getting ready to go.  At sunset, half-a-day later, you return so you can enjoy it for a couple of hours more until you flop into bed, exhausted.  Where did you spend the best part of the day?  That’s right, in toil.

The same holds true for the car.

When it comes to the toys you purchase with your toil, maybe a boat out on a nearby lake, you get to enjoy it even less than you do the house; perhaps four-to-five hours every other Saturday during summer, weather permitting.

Then there’s all the electronic gizmos that let you fritter away your non-toil hours playing stupid games just so you can endure more toil to pay for them.

When you finally reach the precious weekend, it’s spoiled by the knowledge that, in just two day’s time, you’ll have to be back at it, toiling again.  Back in the 1960s, I got my first adult job; I worked for the phone company selling pay phones.  Gad!  The work was stultifying, the boss a dimwit and the company a study in petty tyranny.  Within six months of hiring on, my right eye developed a nervous tic.  In anticipation of the weekend, the tic would go away about noon on Fridays and, in dread of the job, would return around dinner time on Sundays.  Christ.

It’s a fine bargain we humans have made with the devil.  In exchange for spending most of our waking hours in toil, we will one day retire.   Of course that fine day won’t come until you’re at death’s door.  Take my uncle as an example.  In his early twenties, he started toiling for a large mid-western railroad.  Over the years he rose through the ranks, finally becoming its comptroller.  My uncle got the mansion on the lakeshore,  a big-ass boat, fine booze and all the other things that come from such toil.  But he also got a bad heart, and he hated the job.  Whenever I stopped by his office for lunch, the standing routine was my asking, “How much longer.”  With a broad smile, he’d count off the years, months, days and, looking at his watch, the hours until he retired.  My uncle put in over forty years at that railroad and when he retired, he lived only three years more until a heart attack carried him off.  But all that said, my uncle was one of the lucky ones; he actually retired and had a few good years. Too many of us die in the harness, never getting to the end of the line.  For example, my dad died at fifty-nine, six years short of retirement.  I, at age sixty-eight, still pull the plow over forty hours a week and will do so until I fall off my perch.

I wonder, in these later years of my life, how many of us humans every stop to ponder the question: “Does my ceaseless toil produce sufficient off-setting reward?”  How many of us put in a lifetime of years, working at grody jobs we detest, on the promise of eventual retirement?  Almost all of us.  But does it ever come true?  Consider Mister Joe Average — like one of the fellows who toils at the iron foundry south of town.  Having scrimped and saved from his meager portion, and now at the threshold of retirement, he and the Missus go see the accountant for a read of the tea leaves.  “Well,” says the beaming accountant,”thanks to your lifetime of toil and thrift, you have enough in this portfolio to last until you’re seventy-three.”

A bad taste comes to Joe’s mouth: “What do mean, seventy-three,” he asks.

“That,” says the accountant, “is when your money runs out.”

Crestfallen, Joe heads back to the company, goes in to Human Resources and says to the gal, “You know that retirement I was putting in for?  Well, forget it.  Looks like I’ll be here a while longer.”

Joe’s toil will be ceaseless after all.  How about yours?

I think the only chance you or I or Joe Average has of escaping this grim fate is to shuck the whole business and join the Ya̧nomamö in South America, living off the land as did our ancestors before they opted for civilization and its ceaseless toil.


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