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    Alan Watts Commencement Speech: The School-Work-Retirement Hoax

           The following section of the Alan Watts lecture transcribed below pertains to the school-work-retirement hoax that many members of first-world societies find themselves trapped in.  I have a good job at a hospital, and I say to myself, “I like my job,” but once when I was camping in the mountains I ran into an accountant who was hiking with a free-lance artist and I had to revise my views on how great I had it as a result of interacting with them.  The free-lance artist was traveling the world and going camping whenever she pleased, whereas the accountant said to me that these were the only four weekdays that he was able to take off all year.  I replied, “Yeah, it’s crazy that we can’t manage to find the time to take off and to…”  He finished by sentence by saying, “To actually live.”  I was pretty much in the same boat as him.

             I still am in that same boat.  I work with several people in their 50s and 60s whom are never happy at work but endure the grind for money.  I tell myself that I will never be like them because I vow to build now a means of support that will prevent me from being 50 and 60 years-old and having to work at a job that I dislike.  I think a huge problem is that older people have not cultivated a passion throughout their life, and after retirement they feel lost because they don’t know how to spend their time.  Furthermore, too many people let their health deteriorate and thus are unable to fulfill their dreams due to their own physical limitations.  Currently, I sometimes work side jobs, and I’ve realized that this whole working for others thing on my free days is a way of taking the easy way out.  Instead of doing the hard thing, which is to sit down and produce creative work, I choose to go work for someone who has in fact build something of their own and is a manifestation of their dreams, I and rationalize working for them because I need money when I fact I could just as easily make the same amount of money in the same time by doing something like drawing a piece of art and selling it.  What I am describing and what Alan Watts mostly talks about can be interpreted as “first-world problems,” but he communicates a critical point:  that if we are tricked into valuing the wrongs things – the things that separate us from nature, each other, and the mental and physical places that help us forge a spiritual connection with the cosmos – then we increase the chances of collective self-destruction and decrease the chances of living together or alone as happy, independent, and intelligent people.

    Alan Watts:

              Now, I’m particularly interested in what Dr. Weaver said about the attitude of the family to children because we have an absolutely extraordinary attitude in our culture and in various other cultures – high civilizations – to the new member of human society.  Instead of saying, “Thank you,” to children, “How do you do? Welcome to the human race; we are playing a game, and we are playing by the following rules… We want to tell you what the rules are so that you’ll know your way around, and when you’ve understood what rules we’re playing by, when you get older you may be able to invent better ones.”  But instead of that we still retain an attitude to the child that he is on probation; he’s not really a human being, he’s a candidate for humanity.  And therefore to preserve the role of parent or to preserve the role of teacher, you have to do what they do in the Arthur Murray School of Dancing, which is that they string you out; they don’t tell you all the story about dancing because if they tell you you’ll learn in a few weeks and go away, and you’ll know it, but instead they want to keep you on.  And in just this way we have a whole system of preparation of the child for life, which always is preparation and never actually gets there.

    Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel

               In other words, we have a system of schooling which starts with grades.  And we get this little creature into the thing with a kind of, “come on kitty, kitty, kitty,” and we get it always preparing for something that’s going to happen.  So you go into nursery school as preparation for kindergarten, you go to kindergarten as preparation for first grade, and then, you see, you go up the grades until you get to high school, and then comes a time when maybe if we can get you fascinated enough with this system you go to college, and then when you go to college if you’re smart you go to graduate school and stay a perpetual student and go to be a professor and go round and round the system.  But in the ordinary way they don’t encourage quite that, they want you after graduate school, or after graduation – “commencement” as it’s called, beginning to get out into the World with a capital W – and so, you know, you’ve been trained for this and now you’ve arrived.  But when you get out into the world at your first sales meeting they’ve got the same thing going again, because they want you to make that quota, and if you do make it they give you a higher quota.  And come along about forty-five years of age, maybe you’re vice president, and suddenly it dawns on you that you’ve arrived, with a certain sense of having been cheated because life feels the same as it always felt and you are conditioned to be in desperate need of a future.

    Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

               So the final goal that this culture prepares for us is called retirement.  When you will be a senior citizen and you will have the wealth and the leisure to do what you’ve always wanted, but you will at the same time have impotence, a rotten prostrate, and false teeth, and no energy.  So all…the whole thing, from beginning to end is a hoax.  And furthermore, some other aspects of the hoax, just for kicks:  you are involved, by in large, in a very strange business system which divides your day into work and play.  Work is something that everybody does, and you get paid to do it because nobody could care less about doing it – in other words, it is so abominable and boring that you can get paid for doing it.  And the object of doing this is to make money, and the object of making money is to go home and enjoy the money that you’ve made.  When you’ve go it, you see, you can buy pleasure.  And this is a complete fallacy; money never can buy pleasures because all pleasures depend upon not putting down a symbol of power – money – but upon disciplines.  In other words now in Sausalito, where I live, we have pier after pier full of fine boats – motor cruisers, sailing boats, all sorts of things – which nobody ever uses because they’ve been bought on the falling for the ad line that “if you buy this thing you will have pleasure, you will have status, you will have something or other.”  But then they suddenly discover that having a boat requires the art of seamanship, which is difficult but rewarding, therefore nobody has time for it and all they do with the boats is have cocktail parties on them on the weekend.  And in myriads of ways, you see, you go home – we’re the wealthiest people in the world – and you would think having earned your money and go home you would have and orgy and great banquet and so on, but nobody does, they eat at T.V dinner, which is just warmed-over airline food, and then they spend they spend the evening looking at a electronic reproduction of life which is divided from you by a glass screen – you can’t touch it, you can’t smell it, it has no color, except maybe if you’re very wealthy it has color, but by and large it doesn’t – and you look at this thing, and you have a strange feeling, you see, that the whole procession of grades that was leading to something in the future, to that goodie, to that gorgeous, voluptuous goodie that was lying at the end of the line, it never quite turns up.  And this is because from the beginning we condition our children to a defective sense of identity.  And this I think is the most important feature in the whole thing: that a child grows into our culture – and I repeat, this is not only in western culture, it is equally true in Japan… We condition the child in a way that sets the child a life problem which is insoluble, and therefore attended by constant frustration.  And as a result of this problem being insoluble, it is perpetually postponed to the future so that one lives – one is educated – to live in the future, and one is not ever educated to live today.

    Die Elster auf dem Galgen.jpg
    Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Magpie on the Gallows

               Now I’m not saying that the philosophy of carpe diem – let us drink for today for tomorrow we die, and not make any plans… what I am saying is that making plans for the future is of use only to people who are capable of living completely in the present.  Because when you make plans for the future and the mature, if you can’t live in the present you are not able to enjoy the future for which you have planned because you will have in you a kind of syndrome whereby happiness consists in promises, and not in direct and immediate realizations.  So long as you feel that tomorrow it will come… as we say in common speech, “tomorrow never comes.”   But everything is based on the idea that you will get it tomorrow, and you can enjoy yourself today, so long as tomorrow looks bright.  But Confucius once said, “A man who understands the Tao in the morning can die contently in the evening.”  That is to say that if you have ever lived one complete moment you can be ready to die, you can say, “Well, that was it, that was the good, that… I’ve had it,” you see?  But if you’ve never lived that complete moment, death is always a guy who like comes into a bar at two-o-clock in the morning and says, “Time gentlemen, please.”   And you say, “Oh please, one more drink, not yet.”  Because you haven’t really had the feeling that you ever had it, that you ever got there.

    Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death

    Here’s a short animation, done by the South Park guys, paraphrasing some of the points transcribed above:


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