It’s Either Here or Prison
By Scott Nappalos
An article about meaning in choosing employment.
From the time I was a child, I was told to follow my dreams and do something I truly loved. Granted I rarely met an adult who was passionate about their work, but they seemed sincere in their desire for others to take that path. The advice of course usually had a piece of bitterness attached to it. As I came of age, the terrain didn’t look pretty. Most of my personal passions were deserts for employment. Nor did I really know anyone who was living the dream, so to speak, at work. My path began from leaving that advice behind.
Society is littered with talk of meaningful work. The creative class, jobs that means something, doing something with one’s life, work that matters, helping people; we’re inundated with phrases, words, and images that describe our poverty and the future that we are supposed to aspire to.
It’s actually worse for people who commit themselves to making radical change in society. A confluence of pressures pushes down on them year after year through family wondering when they will grow up, friends perpetually moving on to something better, and a gnawing sense of wasted potential. Why bother with the endless meetings, the mindless work, and for what?
Unless you’re born into a situation where work is unnecessary, nearly everyone experiences the modern workplace. Service work in particular serves as a stark reminder of reality and alternatives. The unending drudgery of task after task slinging fatty coffee that literally poisons people’s health, selling useless items created on the backs of abused workers elsewhere, cardboard boxes rolling down the line that just keep coming and coming, forcing a smile when we are cursed at or harassed; Nearly everyone has been forced to participate in the bitterness of having our time stolen. It’s perhaps harder to bare for those who know the widest extent of the misery of humanity and understand how preventable it all is.
The sense of meaninglessness in jobs is a strong current in society. Tv shows, films, music, and other forms of pop culture repeat the comedy, frustration, and depression of spending one’s time on tasks that seem pointless. This isn’t to say that people’s jobs don’t make a difference. Many things we do keep society running and contributes to the social good. The meaninglessness of work in today’s society arises out of the reflection of workers that their time is not really benefiting the people they serve or advancing them as people. As a healthcare worker I can see both sides of this. Obviously healthcare is crucial for societies. At the same time any hospital worker can recognize how it is that the healthcare system not only harms people, but also in general contributes to people staying sick. Meaning is something deeper than just keeping the gears moving and helping our fellow human beings. Meaning is about where we are headed and who we are. This is where youth get squeezed and falter.
Modern capitalism with its base of debt makes everything seem possible. The compulsion to put food on the table is softened by easy credit. We can go back to school, live on credit cards, travel to cheap places, and find means to delay work enough to get by. Young people accumulate useless degrees and insane debts while deferring the future and often slipping into the delusions of jobs that simply do not exist. Choosing what to do with our lives takes on the characteristic of other more banal decisions. We are shopping for an ethical product. Validation stands at the core of this, and plays off the fear of a wasted life, idle efforts, and ending up trapped chasing false ideals. What to tell worried parents who watched their child squander what chances they had for material success? It is better to say that one is employed fighting poverty, educating the youth, or some other remix of Mother Theresa, Gandhi, or perhaps Bono.
The problem is that there is no escape. Professors spend decades moving town to town as itinerant adjuncts teaching the most bland classes, writing mechanical essays in desperation to stay published, and constantly struggling for something more stable. Even at it’s best, University life leaves less time for liberatory thought and action than the part time service worker. Union organizers spend seventy or eighty hour weeks at the service of hostile bureaucracies, and too often find themselves in the position of pimping the Democratic party and selling backroom deals with management to disillusioned workers. NGO staff share the same fate, bending to the will of the funders and forced to represent the interests of the powerful under false flags of social change. Self-employment and cooperatives turn activist efforts into business efforts, and consume more time than any capitalist could ever demand from a job. Good people find themselves lost there, tired of all the worn appearances that hide a rotten structure, yearning to escape too their work and get back to something more authentic.
We need to question and even condemn the pressure on youth to find meaningful work. As long as we live in capitalism, its deep wells will poison all the streams flowing into our cities. With capitalist work, even the most holy pursuit will end up in mindlessness, subservience to stupid management, and in fighting the current trying to make some good out of a hostile situation that constantly tries to undo our efforts. This isn’t to say that some don’t enjoy their jobs. Some do. Yet on the balance, the vast majority can’t find employment that will engage them, and those who do generally must sacrifice the rest of their lives for the privilege. The real question to be raised isn’t whether you should enjoy your job or not, but whether you should dedicate your life to work. Or better, what is the relation of living to working?
This logic should be turned on its head. It’s not what we’re employed doing that should define, validate, or give meaning to our lives; it’s our life itself that does. How much brighter does the future look to liberate oneself from the oppressive concept of boundless sacrifice to meaningful jobs? Why shouldn’t youth seek to maximize their lives against this work? There are other roads open to us. We can work, as we must, but can struggle to find the most time for ourselves and our causes. Better we write, protest, organize, and gather in our workplaces on time off, than to cement that relationship into employment or worse into our identities.
Our lives are defined by what we do, not who writes our paychecks. A political life is an attempt to regain a meaningful life. It is a task for all of society, and not monopolized by a special class employed as professional politicians, bureaucrats, and humanitarians. Meaning is not at work, but in the beauty of daily living, in struggling for a better world, and whatever path your desires take you towards. Our joy is not found in simply imposing our will onto the world, but in the happiness that can only be found in fighting for a more just and beautiful world around us. Dedicating oneself to the struggles of others changes you. Within, we must fight to constantly overcome ourselves against the current, a process that can be deeply enriching. The commitment and work of liberation makes all of society our classroom, our workplaces gymnasiums, and our neighborhoods galleries.
Sacco and Vanzetti remind us of the infinite potential and beauty of life even from within the walls of prison. The two Italian anarchist immigrants dedicated their lives to the causes of their class working as a cobbler and a fish peddler respectively. Their sacrifices were more than just in their professions, as they were framed for murder and executed by the state of Massachusetts. The writings of the pair from prison are inspiring not only for their perseverance and insights, but for their joy. Sacco wrote to his son Dante his final letter before his execution, sitting down as we do, to find words for the path life carries us down. Facing his own death and the life of his son in front of him, he wrote
“Don’t cry Dante, because many tears have been wasted, as your mother’s have been wasted for seven years, and never did any good. So, Son, instead of crying, be strong, so as to be able to comfort your mother, and when you want to distract your mother from the discouraging soulness, I will tell you what I used to do. To take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wild flowers her and there, resting under the shade of trees, between the harmony of the vivid stream and the gentle tranquility of the mothernature, and I am sure that she will enjoy this very much, as you surely would be happy for it. But remember always, Dante, in the play of happiness, don’t you use all for yourself only, but down yourself just one step, at your side and help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because that are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all and the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.”
In spite of all the sadness that surrounds us and plagues this world. Our daily lives can be the work of love. We do not need titles, positions, or to be taken into service to achieve this work. We only need the commitment to set ourselves to the betterment of all and to dive head in to the struggle against power. Against the monotony and pervasive depression we see, Vanzetti offers this:
I am convinced that human history has not yet begun; that we find ourselves in the last period of the prehistoric. I see with the eyes of my soul how the sky is suffused with the rays of the new millennium.
Beyond the horizon of today lie potentials for humanity freed from the artificial constraints of society twisted by the contours of power and wealth. We do not need to imagine paradises, utopias, or that any political movement can solve all of humanity’s problems to see how much more is possible. This is the task of youth today, to constantly push further in practice and expose the expanding vista of human potential
Cloak of Deception
Before me is an endless road
Built upon the remains,
Of seeds that once gave us air.
A road mixed with the sweat,
Blood, and fingerprints,
Of men who resentfully molded
The maze of its people.
A road brought to life by dark Visions of men
A road where generations must Follow in order to keep,
The clothes on their backs and Their stomach silent.
As I walk straight ahead on this Concrete floor,
Victims warn me of possible Futures.
Men layered with dirt, urine, and Grime walk across me,
Women surrounded by children Stare with envy,
Loss souls in need of another
Taste of bliss ask for money.
Who are these victims?
Who are their oppressors?
They are victims of false hope,
Who swam into a body of water
And hit into the bottom of lies.
Dwelling in a land of the “free”
Faced by men clinging into their Shadows
Making their choices before they Even speak
Taming them into servants of Greed.
Mankind are death, dumb, and Blind
Into a post-modern world of Capitalism,
The more we work hard to catch The golden ticket of the American Dream,
The more we less recognized
We are still in the startling line.
How can we build
Consciousness in a delusional Cosmos of democracy?
The answer is hiding within us
And until we remove the cloak
Then we can rebuild our vision, Brain, and hearing again.
And pull out the hidden strength Lying within.
By Medea of Euripides
When you live in a world that is completely dominated by a murderous and ruthless system what are your options? Unfortunately the ideology of capitalism keeps the majority, brainwashed, isolated and pacified. But for those who are aware of how truly evil this system is what are the possibilities?
The way I see it there are those who willfully participate and seek to ascend within capitalism, those that organize, unite, and fight, and those that attempt to escape this all encompassing system.
First I did what I thought was fighting. I was a freshly politicized high school graduate, charmed by Occupy Miami, and thought that the mobilization would affect some kind of change. I participated in “General Assemblies.” I danced with my sign in protest outside of corporate bank headquarters in downtown Miami on a nearly weekly basis. I was on committees, cooked for the camp occasionally, and sought to show others the importance of the Occupy phenomenon. What other alternative was there?
After living at the government center in Miami for three months, and actively participating in a mobilization that had no political line, and seemed to be focused on the ambiguity of “greedy corporations” I became deflated. Burned out. Apathetic.
I spent my time getting high, drunk, and skipping class. Eventually I met a boy who traveled the country by hitch hiking and hopping freight trains. Irritated by a mobilization that treated mediation and lifestyle changes as revolutionary praxis, I hit the road in an effort to flee a crushing system.
Flying at 80 miles per hour on a monstrous freight train, the wind beating upon me so loudly that I couldn’t even hear the song I drunkenly shouted, I believed I had made my escape. I was so proud that I illegally used the carrier of commodities as my personal chauffer service. I convinced myself that I was a wild rambling thing. I was superior to those idiots scrambling to survive, ascend, then die.
But was my alternative lifestyle really outside the realms of capitalism? The clothes I wore were still woven with the blood of garment factory workers. The food I ate was injected with the same poison that makes higher profit margins possible. Each time I plunked down my panhandled dollars to purchase a half gallon of whiskey profit for the bourgeoisie was released. And ultimately my survival depended on the prevailing capitalist system, as do all alternative lifestyles within capitalism. If not for capitalism how would I travel? How would I ask strangers for their money? How would I eat?
My fellow members of the traveler subculture, despite their alternative life style still had ingrained within them the racist, sexist, and reactionary nature that is integral to the superstructure of capitalism. And many of them desired to be members of the bourgeoisie. So, where was my escape really? Once I had come to this realization I drowned my panic and my politics in booze and pot as so many do. I pacified myself. Successfully self-deluded, my focus shifted to pleasing myself and myself alone. This is the nature of escapism. As inclusive or well intentioned as can be it is based on individualism and self interest. I forced myself to believe that I was not cowardly for fleeing towards nothing, eyes and ears closed, pretending escape.
There is no escape from capitalism. It is global, and it commodifies every piece of your being from your hair color, to your mental health, to your emotions. It will force you to participate. There will never be an alternative to capitalism while capitalism exists. It crushes everyone and everything that stands in the path of its own development. It is not moral. It is not reasonable. It cares for no living thing. There is no such thing as polite or friendly capitalism. Capitalism at its base is structured around the theft of resources, displacement of people, exploitation of labor, creation of commodities for the generation of profit, and exponential growth. It will consume until we are left with absolute nothingness.
This is a difficult realization to come to grips with. Everything that we have been taught, our social conditioning, our schooling, our family structures, our way of life is all based on the preservation of this omnicidal system. This system that values capital more than the life of human beings or the life of our planet. Jesus Christ, no wonder I wanted to escape. It is devastating.
But we must not attempt to run. There are those who unable to even entertain the idea of escape. These are the people who are swallowed and crushed by the gears of production, and spit out as next season’s fashion trends. These are the people who are beaten, raped, exploited, and dominated to generate capital for the masters of the capitalist system. And it is in their interest that we must organize.
No alternative that capitalism offers us will allow us to escape from this nightmare. Purchase as many energy efficient light bulbs and Priuses as you like. The earth will still burn, and the lives of innumerable beings will be exterminated. We cannot run away from the destructive nature of capitalism.
In order to create a true alternative we must create our own organizations. Our own truly democratic structures that are based on life rather than death. And we must, we must dismantle capitalism.
Our only option is to organize. To resist. To fight till our fucking deaths.
Would you rather ignore the systemic horror or fight for a chance of life?
More than Just the Meds
I’ve had depression since my senior year of high school. I knew the way I felt, my lack of motivation, my anger, bitterness and sadness, was out of step with everyone else. The more I put off dealing with my personal issues, the more these feelings took over my life. It got to the point where I started feeling intense stomach pains whenever I would feel angry or sad, usually for dumb or minor issues that did not warrant this type of response. Luckily, I was able to deal with all that (so I thought) but then something else happened. I started college. I know that might sound silly at first, but moving from a boring-ass town in northern Florida to a city where I knew very little people, worked harder than I ever thought I could, became involved in political activism, and struggled with many difficult life questions, was very challenging.
If you find yourself saying, “This is just another fucking white kid complaining about his problems,” you are right, but complaining is not really what I’m trying to do here. My friends and all the other people I have met in my short time here at FIU have shown me that a lot of people in college are dealing with the same things I am, whether it be stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, alienation, etc. I am honestly amazed at some of the things people have shared with me. It is their bravery that inspired me to talk about my struggle with mental illness and to show how I have thus far dealt with it in hopes that you may hopefully learn from my experience or share this with a friend who might be going through similar things.
One of the people I have to thank most for helping me with my depression is actually my ex-girlfriend (let’s call her Maria). I really, really liked Maria and she made me very happy, but I was unable to express how I felt because of my depression. By this time, I was starting to become aware of my depression symptoms, but I was very reluctant to identify myself as someone who was depressed since that word is thrown around so much in every day talk and thought that if I was depressed I was somehow weak or emasculated. Well one day Maria said that she didn’t want to see me anymore because she thought she wasn’t making me happy or that I didn’t like being around her. This was when I knew something was wrong. After a sleepless night of research and thought, I came to the conclusion that; yes, I have depression and I need to do something about it because it is not only affecting myself but also the people I love. It took a lot of courage, but I told my mom and she was actually completely understanding and even proud that I was able to tell her what I was going through and agreed to take me to a psychologist. Then I told Maria what was up. She as well was very supportive and said that she wanted to help me get better. The next few months were great, I was on medication that worked and had very supporting friends and family.
Moving out and going to college really shook up that level of comfort and stability I had achieved back home. I had the expectation that college was going to be great and whatever, but it turned out to be very difficult as most of you all reading this are probably aware. I was all alone then my first semester of college; Maria had to move with her crazy over-protective mom in middle of nowhere Puerto Rico and could never talk to me, I had a shitty part-time job that would make me stay up until 1 a.m., 3 school nights a week, then go to school and had to work under the pressure of getting a high enough GPA so I could keep my scholarship or else move back home with my parents. Being without any of the family and friend support structures I took for granted was when I truly learned the value of other people. Being politically aware makes you extremely conscious of how fucked up this world is and how disgusting humans act towards each other under the current social system, but nothing restores my faith in humanity more than having friendships that are strong, supportive and honest. I still have my shitty part-time job, I still bust my ass on my school-work, and am still without the cute girlfriend I had back home (ladies, hmu) but what I do have is a close group of people that are engaged in the same struggles as me and fighting for a better world, while at the same time supporting and uplifting each other. This alleviates a lot of the stress, sadness and anger that comes as a byproduct of the everyday grind.
Another difference I noticed when moving to Miami was the schedule and pace of life. Part of that is the fact that I am a full time student, but it is also, I think, just an endemic part of city life. This creates an environment where everyone is at non-stop pace and they rarely take time for nature and their physical well-being.
Nature and physical activity are holistic things that can do wonders for people dealing with mental illness. Cities have almost endless opportunities for growth and exploration – which is why I chose to move here instead of staying in my hometown – yet they can be harsh and alienating if you do not take time for yourself. I can’t begin to tell you how refreshing it was in my ecology class to go to field trips every Saturday and experience the beauty that South Florida has to offer. Whether it was looking at alligators in the Everglades or being waste deep in water in Big Cypress, it just reminded that the world is beautiful. More than just inspiring, nature can actually heal. There is a whole subfield of psychology called “ecopsychology”. If you are unsure of where to go to get nature there are plenty of state and national parks within an hour or so drive of Miami that are cheap and big enough where can get lost all day exploring. My favorite places are Big Cypress National Preserve, Bill Baggs State Park on Key Biscayne (free if you ride your bike), Everglades National Park, and Jonathan Dickinson State Park (a little far but well worth the drive).
In the cities, where we have super crazy schedules, we often forget that physical activity is an extremely helpful way of dealing with stress. In high school, I ran on the Cross Country team every year and I absolutely loved it. Now every chance I can get I go for a run or I go on a bike ride. This is a pretty common thing when talking to other friends dealing with mental illness. They always say exercise, whether it be playing soccer, running, swimming at the beach, dancing, walking their dog around the neighborhood, etc., does a lot of good for their mental state. For me, nothing feels better than the burning in my legs when I sprint on my bike or I am pushing myself to climb up a bridge. It is healthy for the body to be put to work like that, but it is extremely helpful when dealing with stress, anger or just need to get out and think about a problem you are having. Something else that was very helpful was last summer my friends and I organized non-competitive soccer games at a local park. This was definitely the highlight of my summer. It was good because we all got to get outside and exercise. The non-competitive aspect was also good for fostering a strong and supportive community. This meant that it wasn’t just a bunch of dude-bros, but also girls and people of different ages. We all would play against each other but it was more like playing with each other. This goes back to the first point I was trying to make about finding a supportive social network of friends and family.
I firmly believe in everything I have written thus far to go a long ways in terms of mental health. However, I recognize there might be limitations. There are moments of crisis and desperation that all of us experience at some point. That is when some people engage in anti-social behaviors, isolate themselves, or self-medicate. Having lost one of the best-friends I’ve ever had to suicide, I want to tell everyone that suicide should never be an option. To anyone who has ever had those thoughts, many of us have, you may feel as if the world is empty and careless, but in fact there are many people that love you and will be heart-broken without you there and that world is a truly better place with you in it. In these times of desperation, it is best to seek professional help. There are people who commit their lives to helping people with mental illness and are willing and infinitely more able than people like me to help you get better. At FIU, there is the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) that is free for any FIU student and they accept walk-in visits. It is a great resource for FIU students. My first semester, I visited twice in my lowest points, spoke to a counselor both times and it helped me immensely. They offer one-on-one counseling, group therapy and also on-site psychiatrists for advising and prescribing the best medical treatment, if you feel like you need it. Personally, I have taken anti-depressant medication and it has really helped me. I can’t speak for everyone nor encourage anyone to seek that option without first talking to the professionals. Unfortunately, I am unaware of any other type of institution that offers psychological services free of charge outside of FIU. But there is a suicide hotline for Miami-Dade County: (305)358-HELP (4357).
I guess the main point I’m trying to make here is that if you are dealing with mental illness, you are not alone; you can make a difference and take control of your life and make it a positive and enjoyable experience. In conclusion I just wanted to outline some of the ways to deal with mental illness I have given (which is in no way exhaustive):
1. Find a supportive circle of friends or family. Not everyone has a healthy home life, so if we want to criticize the patriarchal family structure, we must be there for each other to create our own familial structures based on love, respect and support. Also reach out to your friends who you see might be
struggling. You have no idea what it means to know that someone cares and wants to listen to you.
2. Be active. Find something that is enjoyable and physically stimulating to get the blood pumping. Our houses become our comfort zones and can end up being our mental prisons. Get outside into the world and experience. Skateboard, ride your bike, shoot some hoops at the neighborhood basketball court. Organize a game of soccer, kickball, ultimate Frisbee to build community and make new friends.
3. Get out of the city and enjoy nature. Cities are beautiful, but there is healing powers in the pollution free air, climbing trees and walking through the forest.
4. Go to a professional. Your friends may be helpful and supportive, but they may not have all the answers. Get help. Know your options and if you and your psychologist decide that it would be best to use medication, then use it and stop using it if it doesn’t help or has negative consequences.
5. Actively take part in the change process. There are people out there working to make the world a better place. I firmly believe there is nothing more healing than attacking the environment around us that creates these disturbing mental states.