‘Where are you from? Who is your family? How many children do you have?’ The questions people ask me the moment I close my notebook, lay bare their priorities: origin, home, children, connection.
‘I didn’t ask you what you do for a living.’ The young man in Zanzibar looks me straight in the eye. ‘I asked you to whom you are connected. Who is your family, who are your friends? To whom do you go, when life is tough?’
His question is sharp, to the point. His eyes are not yet ready to give up. ‘When I ask you who you are, you answer by telling me how you make a living. When you ask me who I am, I will tell you who my father is, and who my mother, my uncles, my aunts and my cousins are. Do you see the difference?’
The above quote comes from my book, Spots of a leopard – on being a man. Written quite some time ago. And still relevant, to me.
When it became clear in 2009 that newspaper journalism and me had no future together, a good friend asked me: “So, who now do you want to be?” Since then, I have had one temporary job, and a handful of freelance assignments.
So many choices, so few opportunities.
From the moment the financial crisis hit Europe (where my main sources of income have always been located), the question “who do you now want to be?” and “who does reality allow me to be?” have become crucially inter-connected.
Am I a writer? Am I a photographer? Am I a “gender specialist”? Am I a web designer? Am I a journalist? Am I this vaguest of options: a consultant? (More crucially, but for another day: “Am I my job – or is my job just one part of me…?”)
I do all of them, and some of them make me some money, sometime. But neither is full-time, and neither allows me to pay any bill of any substantial size.
The markets I work in defy all normal, old-fashioned laws of economics. Products and services these days are given away for free, or otherwise for next to nothing: news, imagery, texts, designs, issues around men & masculinities… Only a few seem able to make a buck, and more and more among them are struggling to do even that.
Need vs Demand
You have to understand: there’s a difference between there being a need, and there being a demand. Demands carry price tags, needs don’t.
This simple line explains some of the present circumstances. But it doesn’t show a way out of the situation. And I’m not talking about the complicated mechanics of finding paid work. I’m referring to the effects of “not having paid work” on my psyche, as a man and as a human being.
Seeing needs in the world, and doing my best in alleviating them – I have noticed – only goes so far in fulfilling some of my own needs. My need for an income, for example. Or my need for an inspiring and energising way of spending my life.
I’m not referring to aspiring to be the bread winner in our household. I have no issues with the fact that my wife makes more than I do, and will most likely continue to do so for the remainder of our working lives.
I’m talking about “doing stuff that makes sense”, work that provides some answer to the question my friend raised: “So, now who do you want to be…?” And I’m talking about paying for my own needs, and carrying my part of the financial burden. This one third bit of the title of this letter: “to provide…”
How does one spends one time, sensibly? If the economics of the moment are such that paid work is hard to come by, how then do I define my being? Lacking paid work, there are these many voices, questioning my right to exist. Trust me: these voices do not come form outside. Not one person has openly criticised me for having been virtually unemployed for most of the last four years.
This questioning comes from within. “Who am I, without a job? Without paid work… Without my own, independent income?”
First and foremost: Am I my job, indeed? Or is my job one of the things I do while alive, to do what every human has to do: toil under the sun to provide?
There will be millions of men asking these same questions, as there will be millions of women. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, existential questions are bound to pop up. Those without paid work will ask these questions, as will those who are stuck in jobs that don’t do much to feed the inner human.
And I guess it’s okay we have these existential questions, once in a while. They make life more interesting, and allow us to change course.
Where are the needs, where are the demands – and how can I connect with both of them, in such a way that both myself and the world get a chance of being all they can be?
Thomas Moore wrote this fantastic book, some years back: A Life at Work – The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born to Do.
A job is never just a job. It is always connected to a deep and invisible process of finding meaning in life through work.
A particular job may be important because of the emotional rewards it offers or for the money. But beneath the surface, your labors are shaping your destiny for better or worse. If you ignore the deeper issues, you may not know the nature of your calling, and if you don’t do work that connects with your deep soul, you may always be dissatisfied, not only in your choice of work but in all other areas of life.
When I finish a web site I really liked designing, when I roam through the humid heat of Mombasa’s slums with my camera, when I write a text from the solar plexus, when I speak in public about my pet theme of men and masculinities, when I counsel friends, acquaintances or complete strangers, there’s this deep sense of connection. A bond – regardless of how fleeting it may be – with that “thing” I’m doing, and how “it” connects me to the bigger picture – and vice versa.
Bringing African art to a world wide audience, or photographing that astounding emptiness somewhere in Kenya, or engaging with men from Mathare slums in Nairobi, or even penning these letters: they provide a purpose, they build connections, they make me stand in awe at our existence.
Doing so through the networks of work, means one doesn’t do it all alone. It becomes a shared joy, a shared destiny, a joint experience.
And that is where I find “being unemployed” a pretty painful experience.
The disconnect that naturally flows from it.