future perfect

In one way or another, the subject I've tended to write about the most in this space has been my fear that I'm not readical enough. Ever since I lived at the Catholic Worker but continued to withdraw money from my ATM and then started protesting war at Oxford while living comfortably off Cecil Rhodes's trust, I've felt distinctly inauthentic because of a perceived gap between my convictions and my economic circumstances.

I suppose I enjoy cultivating a perception that I'm living "against the grain." This was certainly the case when I was at Menno House, living in a "commune" (of sorts) in the midst of upper-middle-class Manhattan. Now that I've joined the ranks of run-of-the-mill apartment renters, I cling to the cachet conferred on me by my less than lucrative position working for a non-profit. As people my age start to think about "settling down" and raising kids, I've always been able to brush aside such bourgeois aspirations by saying, "Well, I don't know if I'm ever going to have that kind of money, not doing the kind of work I do..."

There's a certain perversity in a young man with an Ivy League education and a Rhodes Scholarship under his belt taking pride in his lack of material comfort. Viewed in a more positive light, it seems like I'm opting out of a game in which I have no interest; viewed more pejoratively, you might say that fear of competition in the big leagues has prompted me to retreat self-righteously off the playing field, to make a virtue of my "underachievement."

Anyway, I turn 27 in a couple of weeks, which still doesn't seem very old to me but apparently does to a lot of other people. Even my 64-year-old aunt, who was visiting this weekend, responded, "Wow, you're getting old," when I reminded her which birthday of mine was just around the corner. What does it mean to get "old" and how does it change one's habits of mind?

We're all told that conservativism is a trait of the old; that's what accounts for bead-wearing hippies who've become SUV-driving suburbanites in their 50s. I like to think that my politics are less likely to be influenced by the onset of middle age. I like to think that I hold certain principles, particularly about the relative value of material goods, that are based on firmly held and well-thought out convictions, not just a transient state of mind. I doubt that I will ever be the type who goes in for excessive personal spending; I come from pretty Spartan stock.

What troubles me a bit more, though, is that phrase invoked by insurance agents throughout the centuries: "planning for the future." In the past few weeks, I've looked at my older role models, people who now in their fifties and sixties who've certainly never chosen material comfort over their personal and political ideals, and I've seen them becoming crippled by age, out of breath or bed-ridden, awaiting hip replacement surgery. When my aunt, a woman who has devoted every fiber of her being to serving others, talks about retiring and not being able to afford where she lives, having to move into "senior housing," the reality of what the future holds becomes more distinct.

There are consequences to not having health coverage and not buying into the company returement plan. Though Dorothy Day expounded the spiritual benefits of living "precariously," as the birds of the air and the lilies of the field do, those sentiments sound a lot different to the old, as their bodies break down.

It's not simply that "retirement" seems a long way off; it's that the very notion of "retirement," as traditionally envisioned, seems completely unappealing to me. I'm someone who really thrives on, lives for, work. So much so that I don't just work a job, but I also do unpaid work, and consider that work my real work. Somehow, I resist the idea of passing away gently in a comfy armchair, enjoying my twilight years, and profess to prefer dropping dead with my hand still on the plough. Is that idea over-romanticized? Is it reasonable? Is it selfish?

Unlike a lot of Americans, I am inclined to think of "saving for the future," as some kind of self-interested, greedy stockpiling. Live off of what little you can, I profess! Such sentiments are easy to spout when you're a young man, unencumbered by family "entanglements" -- but what about children? or a life partner? How ethical is it to persist in performing below one's earning potential when there are others, dependents, whose lives are yoked onto your own? I'm thinking of looking for a new job soon and, only two years on from when I was last looking, I find myself much more inclined to prioritize a higher salary, a pension plan, etc. over the intangible satisfactions of doing work that I value.

When I spoke to my aunt this weekend, she told me about a contemporary of hers, a married woman who is now living in a big private development, luxury housing for retirees, where seniors have a pool and activities scheduled for them and take cruises and the like. My aunt instinctively dislikes all of that. "Just think what we could accomplish if all of those retirees spent their time doing volunteer work!" she said. Politically, I agreed with her. But on a personal level, as I looked at this aging woman who already does too much for others, who never takes a vacation, who never thinks of herself, I wanted to say that maybe what she needed was to be a bit more selfish, to take a cruise or something, to treat herself.

The people living in those luxury developments are simply a different breed from my aunt and me, I guess. There are a great many people out there (the majority, perhaps?) who don't think of work as their "life's work" but rather as a means to material comfort. The idea of working in order to build up their nest egg doesn't just seem natural, it seems like a a pre-destined path, the only possible end point on that familiar roadway we call "The American Dream." Retirement is their utopia, their promised land where everything is provided for and one can face the inevitable in comfort. The revolutionaries (and I would count my aunt in this camp) see something else at the end of the line, another kind of utopia. They work and work so that all people can be clothed and housed, or free, or so that society is more just, or so that wealth is more even distributed. They work towards an equally idyllic vision but one that is, inevitably, illusory, at least in its perfect form.

We all work towards our dreams, but the conservatives, the pragmatists, have theirs within reach. Their dream, limited as it may seem, can be achievable, and not without its benefits. Isn't the person with his or her material needs met more likely to be a good parent, a well-read person, even a better citizen? Dorothy Day may say that poverty ennobles us, but surely that's only when we've chosen it after having known comfort in the first place, right?

One of the ironies that always flummoxes me is that the dreams of the working class, the dreams of the very people that so many activists want to help, are often the most "establishment" dreams of all: a house, two cars, disposable income, a retirement fund. How does my rejection of all that help others achieve prosperity? In my desire for social "levelling," am I not just trying to bring everyone down?

I'm not thinking of taking responsibility for children anytime soon, or of buying real estate, but who knows? Someday I might. Can I really expect everyone to be like me, or like my aunt? Like Shen Te in Brecht's Good Person of Setzuan we are all trapped in the bind created by the market economy: try to be good to others and you will inevitably short-change your own survival. At what point does one's own self-interest tip the balance? When (and why) do we downsize our dreams, trading them in for more concrete comforts?