on honoring what's essential

This is what happens when you have amazing friends who love you and want to support your spontaneous side in their own planned way. They show up while you are watering your flowers on Friday evening, and they are wearing pink pajamas and jump out of the car and announce, “Slumber party!” They whisk you 45 minutes north where you spend the next few days playing cards and imagining plots for B movies and talking about where your lives are headed.

I spent Saturday morning daydreaming in a hammock, casting the conversation of the previous night against bird calls and clouds. When I choose nature over the rest of life, it always seems to end up that the rest of life is small by comparison. Even the craziest idea for social change, or the greatest frustration with systemic shortcomings, or disappointment in political gridlock fades back against a forest of white pine and birch trees.

And I wonder, is this escapism, or is it a return to what’s most essential?

If I bought a small piece of land, built a little house, and lived a life that honored only what’s most essential (in my understanding of it), would I be more or less ignorant? Would I be more or less connected to my neighbors? Would I be more or less contributing to change?

I am not sure. I am not suggesting that I would completely unplug. In my view of what’s essential, I would still do work that connects to the bigger picture — that’s just who I am. But I suppose doing what’s essential means doing only the best and most authentic work, the work most aligned with your purpose and with a high potential to benefit from your unique contributions.

(And I should clarify that “work” has one connotation traditionally, but I use it as a placeholder that ignores the lines of the professional and the personal. I think of “work” as an expression of your purpose and truest self, whether it is writing poetry or leading a social change movement or gardening. For me, it is a combination of traditional paid work, like consulting, and craft-type work, like writing.)

So if people got to what is most authentic and essential, what would happen? Maybe first a shift in priorities. And priorities work like fallen logs in a river; the energy flows differently as soon as they are lodged. So where would the energy go? Would getting to the most essential parts of living and working mean a kind of willful ignorance, or would it mean an attempt to focus and nurture only the best, most potential-rich parts?

Put another way: If you said no to one thing today and said yes with more intention and attention to something else, what would happen?

Are we having the wrong conversation about "having it all"?

There are parts of The Atlantic’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All" that resonate (e.g., the crazy force that is billable culture) and then there are parts that bother me, like the quirky parallel of the marathon runner employee who gets up early and the mothering employee who gets up early.

I agree it’s time to challenge traditional feminist idea of “having it all,” but this story almost perpetuates the problem by settling into some boxed/absolute thinking of its own. The author often narrows in on family values, an isolation that misses the chance to talk about the bigger social opportunities. At times, this isolating angle seems to come with an underlying judgment: that family rearing is a kind of noble activity that should therefore be uniquely considered and supported, as opposed to supporting quality of life for all people in general.

It makes me think of the scene in Little Women, where Jo argues that women should get the vote not because they are good, but because they are human beings and deserve equity. Similarly, people should not be supported or have flexibility in their careers just because they are raising families, but because they are people and it’s simply better to have a balanced life. 

This should have nothing to do with kids, and maybe that’s what most bothers me about the article. Maybe I’m annoyed in general that if I am a feminist, there’s an assumption that I must have an innate orientation to motherhood, and that means I must also carry the banner for families. This bothers me in two ways: First, it doesn’t go far enough in terms of a cultural shift. Second, it insults men like my husband, who are working their asses off to evolve in their own right but tend to be the afterthought of social movements aimed at “women and families.” 

It’s time to dig deeper. I don’t really care if you choose to wake up at 4 am to train for marathons or if you choose to get up to feed your newborn. What matters is creating a society that values and supports balanced living.

"Family-friendly policies" are not exactly that radical at the end of the day. Radical change would be the world deciding to go to a four-day workweek. Radical change would be regular creative sabbaticals, or a complete redefinition of careers away from title-collecting and ladder-climbing toward strengths-building and project-hopping. This article has done lots to describe the symptoms and current conditions, but if we really want to reinvent ourselves, our careers, and our workplaces — rather than merely fix broken systems and solve old problems — we need to expect more and experiment actively and significantly. We need to give ourselves permission to imagine bigger instead of inheriting and rehabbing yesterday’s model.