When free of imposition…

A friend sent me a quotation from Buckminster Fuller, excerpted from a conversation printed in New York magazine in 1970. Panelists were asked to comment on urban planning, air pollution, and the possibility of a new lifestyle that might promote healthier urban coexistence.  Here’s what Fuller said:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

I’m pretty sure if he’d thought about it (or maybe if he were saying it now rather than 40 years ago) he’d take out the “back to school” part.  What he means there, I think, is that earning a living is getting in the way of people doing their best work.  For some people, thinking about whatever they were thinking about might involve schooling of some kind.  For many others, it wouldn’t.

In my search for the source of that quotation, I came across another of Fuller’s which I had heard before but whose origin I didn’t know.  In response to a young boy’s letter asking whether Fuller considered himself a “doer” or a “thinker,” he wrote: “The things to do are: the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done.  Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.”

It has been my experience that what Fuller is saying about people here (in both quotations) is true – each of us is already up to something before we start getting told what to be up to.  I have not yet met a child who wasn’t, very early in life, already busy with the work of mastering something, often something distinct from what anyone around him or her was up to.  Among other things, children study patterns, organize and categorize things, invent, take things apart, put things together, tell stories, make peace, mix and combine ingredients, draw elaborate diagrams.  They think a lot.  It sounds to me as though Fuller thought that the essence of one’s potential contribution (and probably livelihood) could be found in those things he or she had already noticed needed to be done and would have gotten right to work on had there not been the imposition and distraction of making a living.

Our fear of finding ourselves (and worse, our children) without means for livelihood compels us to think first of earning a living and only later (if at all) of this sort of unique and potentially valuable contribution.  But what if the very things that qualify each of us for unique contribution may in fact ultimately prove better access to livelihood than the collection of things we’re told we must learn in order to be employable?

It’s interesting to me that if I run through a mental list of the people I know and what they tend to do when left to their own devices, I find an astounding diversity of preference and capacity.  If we started from scratch, and each of these people put their full attention on the things they love to do, there’d quickly be food growing and structures built, trash collected and leaves raked up.  There’d be new things invented, old things fixed, art made, efficiency demonstrated.

I can be as pessimistic as the next person.  In fact I’d venture to say that I am more pessimistic than the next person.  But the nature of my work is such that I encounter many people for whom it has not worked (including with respect to livelihood) to be primarily engrossed in the pathways we have created for the purpose of pointing ourselves in the direction of making a living.  It has made these people frustrated, tired, sick, depressed, alienated.  It has distracted them from the things they are best at and originally committed to. It has cost a great deal in the realization of potential.

I can’t help but wonder what we might be able to create if we were to frame our lives another way – if we were to release the task of living-making and take up instead the task of giving whatever there is for each of us to give.  Of thinking, as Fuller invited us to, about whatever it is we are already thinking about.