On courage that is in-and-against work

“It isn’t for the moment that you are struck that you need courage, but for the long uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

“You have to carry the fire.”

“I don’t know how to.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Is the fire real? The fire?”

“Yes it is.”

“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”

“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”

Cormac McCarthy. 2006. The Road.

I hate hope. I hate the neoliberal sound of it. It’s the kind of bullshit that enables celebrity academics to bang on about hope’s bastard twin, “equality of opportunity”, when what they should be struggling for is equality.

It never used to be this way. I read Jonathan Sachs’ The Politics of Hope, and I connected to the idea that academics might push back against the perceived libertarian revolution, and thereby defend and renew the social structures and institutions on which our growth as individuals and our cohesiveness as a society depend. At one point Sachs argues (Vintage, 2000, p. 137) that:

A strong civil society protects liberty because it diffuses the centres of power. It creates fraternity because it encourages people to work together as neighbours and friends. It promotes equality because it tempers self-help with help to others, and because the help given to others is such as to encourage their participation and eventually independence. Most importantly, civil society constitutes a moral domain, a world of covenants rather than contracts, in which duty, obligation, loyalty and integrity restrain the pursuit of self-interest, in which I learn to value others and win their trust because that is the only way families and communities can be maintained.

I liked this. It connected. It made hope feel important. But the older I get, the more I figure that in addressing the Right’s colonisation of libertarian ideals, tied to a morality framed by specific versions of autonomy and hard-work, and the collapse of privilege into entitlement, and the drive for the private and the contract, hope is never enough. In fact it simply cannot carry the power to renew anything on its own.

Reducing our existence to hope risks creating an everlasting apprenticeship for those externalised liberal virtues or traits or conceits or whatever through which we outsource responsibility for our selves and ourselves, to this corporation or that political party or that drug firm or this University. It leads us to focus on humility, justice, selflessness, participation, accountability to rules which we did not create. If we were just better neoliberal subjects, and redistributed opportunity. If only.

I’m not arguing for an amorality of living, but I’m trying to understand how we might fight to critique the rules that govern shackle our lives. It’s about questioning the hope that things will turn out satisfactorily or that someone or something else might make us happy. Or that it is what it is, but that hard-work and merit will work for you. Hope risks reproducing the worst kind of fatalism that subsumes each moment of our lives. In simply hoping for the best, we risk giving others what John Holloway would call power-over our lives, rather than our fighting for spaces in which we can develop the power-to recreate our lives, or to live for our selves and ourselves.

And this is about justice and it is about community and it is about co-operation and it is about solidarity and it is about faith and it is about morality. And most of all it is about courage. And in this Stephanie Dowrick argues (Viking edition, 1997, p. 13) that:

Courage comes out of and expresses love. This love may be intensely personal or individual, but it is just as likely to express and commitment to the belief that life itself is something marvellous, precious, worth having, worth living fully and, in ten thousand ways, worth fighting for…. courage offers something that can balance fear, draw the sting from it, put it in its place, open us to life, and set us free.

She goes on to connect courage and consciousness; courage and life in the face of acts and behaviours and emotions and uncertainty and complexity. That courage is an attitude that “allows you to learn that even when life has apparently betrayed you life is itself still present.” Hope does not make life possible without the courage to persist, to exist, to be, to be rebuilt with others, to trust and find faith. And it does this moment by moment. Dowrick (p. 24) says:

Courage is love’s miraculous face. It achieves its miracles through transformation. It allows the impossible to become possible; the unendurable to be endured; trust to be renewed; and the unexpected to become the inevitability that opens you to unprecedented insights about who you are, about what life is. When courage stirs, it delivers the strengths you need but didn’t know you had.

The things that we face don’t change through courage, but our relationship to them and to life does. And through courage maybe hope is rekindled against hopelessness; and maybe faith and trust; and maybe tolerance and forgiveness. Built upon daily acts that are personal and social and responsible (in that we are responsible for them), we might take courage to accept and care for ourselves and our lives. And face down those who speak of opportunity or meritocracy or justice or autonomy or hard-working or deserving, without critique. To face-down those who actively dissociate, in our outsourced lives, abstracted by money and productive work, and the tyranny of the clock, and the poverty of capital.

Those in-power who wish to punish those who become “instantly and terrifyingly sick”, by cutting the work-related group of the ESA. Those in-power, who will punish those claiming the Access to Learning hardship fund. Those in-power, who reinforce social divisions by wailing about scrounging. Those in-power who do nothing to reduce child poverty. Those in-power who continually impose the brutalisation of time as it is revealed through work. Those in-power who continually punish others, in order to discipline the rest. And who take not only our time and our labour, but also our humanity.

In this Dowrick argues (p. 67):

Courage is what it takes to be fully human. It’s what pushes us to survive the daily navigation between the known and the not-known; to deal with the inevitable; to create useful distinctions between what we can change and what we cannot. It is what will allow us to go into our own particular versions of hell. It is what will give us the strength and the grace to emerge, and still find life worth living.

And I’m writing this because I need to say something about the moment that courage is needed. The ongoing, seemingly endless moments when courage is needed. And girded by the courage of Kate Bowles, who wrote the following about her life and her family and her crisis, and about the way that our work compresses what is valued and valuable, until it is either stolen or neglected. She wrote:

on Go Home on Time Day this year, I was sitting in a surgeon’s office. It turns out that I have breast cancer, and I found out that very day. And here’s the thing: I first thought about getting something checked out exactly 12 months ago. I found time at the end of 2012 to take a day off work, got a referral from my GP, and then the vague unease passed. So I didn’t chase it up.

Over a busy year being both a full-time worker and a parent to three school-age children, I noticed now and then that the unease came back, and I fought with it in the middle of the night, along with to-do lists and unsent emails and ideas for projects and the anxieties of my co-workers and all of my misgivings about working for an institution whose driving mission is to be in the top 1% of world universities, which seems to me as shallow and demoralising an idea as any I’ve heard since I started working in higher education.

And now here we are.

And now here we are. And for all sorts of reasons I read those five words with an intense scream against the pain that this life has become and the choices we are forced to make, in order to justify our lives as hard-working and worthy of justice. And I scream against the pain of the compromises that are contained in those five words. And I recognise that it is in the moment of a crisis that the things that we do, and the compromises that we make, to be a manager or a co-worker or for the clock or for impact or for efficiency or for whatever, resolve.

The moment of the crisis is the singularity. The moment when everything becomes crystal clear; when timelines collapse and we have some resolution. When the world makes sense. Our lives, our loves, our families, our fears and dreams, the things and the people that we refused or put off, how we lived our lives; resolved in-and-against work. This precious moment in our lives standing in deep, qualitative contrast to the clock that measures our life’s purpose quantitatively.

Kate goes on to talk about courage, based upon the premise that following the singularity or the resolution of the Moment of crisis “you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.” What a thing to say. What a courageous thing to say about work and about life, and about self-care and self-love, and about what it means to live. She states:

why had it come to me so strongly that it was important to speak back to this kind of dispiriting and divisive [team-building, work] activity, however well-intentioned it might be?

I’ve come to this conclusion: I really have a problem with the culture of work in higher education. Having this diagnosis doesn’t make me special, because it doesn’t make me differently mortal than anyone else.  We are neither vampires nor zombies, whatever the craze for playing with these ideas: we are humans, and we are all here together for a very short time, historically speaking. And so that being the case, the question facing us all is this: what do we do about work?

what we need is the courage to put work itself at risk.

The courage to put work itself at risk.

And to live our lives, rather than outsourcing them.

To find solidarity. And maybe some faith and trust, in ourselves and others.

To resist and push-back, against the quanta and the clocks that diminish us.

To expose and explode the moments in time that form our singularities, in order to highlight how some resolution can be found.

To witness the courage we have to recover ourselves. In every moment.

[NOTE: this post is dedicated to Kate. It, like so much of my life these past few years, reflects the perseverance and the compassion of my friends. It’s amazing how the solidarity of others enables courage to be rekindled.]


6 Responses to On courage that is in-and-against work

  1. As always, a lot here for me to slowly ponder. But hours after reading Kate’s post, her words reverberate and I find myself desiring to be outside copping wood or digging in the garden then peck peck pecking on the keyboard.

    But I just had some say how I loved the opening fire inside quote from The Road. Everyone I know talks about the boom in words of “dark”, “depressing”, yet to me I found it a beautiful love and life story. Once I might have described it in terms of a story of hope, but definitely, on today;s reading, this idea of a story of courage rings much more true.

  2. This post has the absolute distinction of being the first thing anyone has ever dedicated to me. But actually, what I find so helpful is the clear way you have mapped out the relationship of courage to labour. And Stephanie Dowrick! I’ve read that chapter, and there’s another Australian woman writer on courage I’d recommend: Maria Tumarkin.

    What I actually came to say was to Alan: I have also been outside all weekend planting. The thing about working your garden is that it really teaches you about what’s cyclic and proper about all of this: look, here’s that hair tie lost in the compost last year, and here are those dry sticks that went in the heap and never broke down, and here is the unrecognisable soil from all of our meals together as a family, all making the next crop.

    John Berger wrote an essay somewhere about waste, shit and compost that really got it home to me. And I think I’m one of those people who reconnects with the value of what my body is capable of achieving when I’m in the dirt.

    I will never be able to thank you enough for this post.

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