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To Be of Use
The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work
By Dave Smith
New World LibraryCopyright © 2005 Dave Smith
All rights reserved.
The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine — which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.
— Wendell Berry
Religion is something you do, not something you believe.
— Kenneth Rexroth
I wonder if you've ever experienced an epiphany — a sudden, emotional, unexplainable understanding, a "peak experience" that delivers you suddenly, powerfully, and immediately into the present. Epiphanies have been described as an awakening, a feeling of wholeness, an illumination, a mystical relation to the infinite — the feeling that everything is just right and well and as it should be. Similar experiences of oneness with all have been felt by basketball players in the swirling midst of an important game when everything just "clicks," by Sufi dancers twirling together in spiritual ecstasy, by jazz players riffing off tight grooves in small combos, by holy rollers babbling in a language no one understands.
I once had such an experience — while working in a grocery store.
Epiphany under the TP
In the mid-seventies, with the Vietnam War winding down and the economy in shambles with high unemployment, I helped some friends start up and run a small, cooperative natural food store in Menlo Park, California. An abandoned 7-Eleven on a frontage road near a freeway was transformed into the Briarpatch Cooperative Market, associated with the legendary Bay Area small business community known as the Briarpatch Network. Three of us were paid to comanage the store, which was staffed by its member-owners. Members were required to work eight hours every three months, running the cash registers, cutting and wrapping the cheese, buying at the San Francisco produce terminal at 3:00 a.m., taking inventory, and stocking shelves. In return, we purchased natural and organic food at prices averaging 30 percent less than those at the local supermarkets and natural food stores. At one point there were 350 families on our waiting list. Our slogan: "We do it ourselves."
We were serving each other and our community with healthy food. We all owned it, we all ran it, and we all benefited from it. Our express register was for members in a hurry, who could ring up their own groceries and leave their money in the drawer. A large poster on the back wall read: "Cooperation is the fun of being and doing together."
Managing the chaos created by untrained and energetic workers along with constant interruptions by shoppers and delivery trucks was both challenging and absorbing. One could only cope by complete immersion in the activity. When it was my turn to run the swing shift, I would come in around noon and immediately dive into the work, already in full active swirl. There was no time to come up for air, to step back and calmly assess priorities. It was full absorption, snap decision making, and constant physical movement. At the end of the business day, as the last shoppers left and a member counted the till and tallied the day's sales, I would suddenly seem to arrive back into myself.
One day in the midst of this constant chaos, I was sitting in the back room at the comanager's desk, its surface covered with notes and paperwork. Overhanging the desk were shelves filled with back stocks of paper towels and toilet paper. Across the aisle was the cheese-cutting table, and next to that, a member was washing produce in the sink. Another member had just gone into the walk-in refrigerator to restock the dairy case. I distinctly remember the song playing on the radio — "... good lovin' is all I really need, c'mon now and gimme some of that good good lovin'" — and the nearby member waiting to unload the next delivery truck was most likely boogying to the music. I looked up from my paperwork and suddenly there was a pause. Everything stopped and all was silent. In one brief moment I experienced what is. In a flash I seemed to meld into and become this open, caring community of hope and love and giving together. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of wonder at the mystery and beauty of it all. The chaos was transformed into a meaningful, joyful, unchoreographed dance, frozen in time. In that moment I felt that I would be completely consumed by emotion coming up from somewhere very deep. If my overcivilized ego had not immediately stepped in to roughly grab hold and shove it back down my throat, I think I would have sobbed for hours. Even as I sit here now at my laptop describing it to you many years later, the memory threatens to emotionally engulf me once again.
All we really need is some of that good, good lovin'. Why are such life-affirming experiences so rare? In the midst of our everyday work, we may give pause and wonder why so much of it is love-less, meaning-less.
Once upon a time, members of my generation broke free and created what was labeled a "counterculture." Because the surrounding culture was not living up to our young ideals, we began creating our own work, our own services, our own communities. I prefer to call what many of us were doing a "parallel culture," as my experience was more about building something new rather than countering or opposing. Between the straight culture and the anticulture, we chose to be part of a third way, seeking to build something positive out of the chaos rather than just spending all our time protesting and demonstrating. We chose to compose new social and workplace structures and relationships, practicing and feeling them, discovering how to make them meaningful and how to restore a measure of love and joy and amazing grace to our daily work. Instead of remaining within rigid hierarchies and stratified gender roles, we were all in it together. Sure, we made mistakes, but we were willing to fail young rather than take our assigned places and nod off into the ethical and moral wasteland we found around us.
Those times in the sixties and seventies mean different things to different people, and our memories of that time are most often associated with events and places. One image we have is Woodstock: free lovin', dope smokin', skinny-dippin', screw-it-all, hippie heaven. Another is Berkeley: radical, peacenik, burn-it-down, antiwar, antinuke, anti-everything. Another is the Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco in 1967. At the time, I was coming of age in the center of it all, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I migrated after having grown up in south Florida, a land of racial segregation with its separate schools, separate restaurants, and separate public water fountains marked "Colored" and "White."
Along with many others, I had responded to John F. Kennedy's call to service. We believed we could and would change the world, and we did. Along with our protests and marches for civil rights, farmworkers' contracts, and the environment, we organized free universities, cooperative food stores, and small alternative community businesses. Our memories of that time are overwhelmingly positive. We had passionate faith in the future and look back now with pride at our accomplishments. We stopped a war. We put civil rights into law. We shut down the building of new nuclear plants. We passed the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act — every one of them now being chipped away by the culture that was then being countered. We created movements built around human potential, women's rights, the environment, alternative health, and natural foods. Many of the positive results have by now been diffused into the overall culture as part of our everyday lives. One of many examples is the market for organic foods. The demand for healthy foods germinated in the fifties through vitamin-centered health food stores and a few scattered organic farms and took root in the sixties through hippie cooperative buying clubs and the popularity of Asian diets. The organic food market has now been growing over 20 percent per year and has gone mainstream.
For me, the sixties and seventies were not about selfishness and doing our own thing, an interpretation that has been perversely sensationalized by the media. Those years were delightfully exuberant with passion, idealism, possibility, higher vision, and work from the heart. They were a way out of the suffocating soullessness imposed by a scientific materialist worldview, the conformity that corporate mega-machine behaviorism requires, and the individualistic selfishness hyped by its marketing. Alienated by the rugged cowboy models of isolated, independent manhood, many of us practiced tribal values of mutual aid and support, the common good in community, and the use of our gifts and creativity for others. We relearned how to take responsibility for each other, have faith in each other, help each other, care about each other, share with each other, cooperate with each other — values that have kept cultures together since humankind began. We were lighthearted and joyous in our abilities to live simply and walk lightly on the Earth. We worked hard at what we believed in and had an enormous amount of fun doing it. Our daily life glowed with purpose and meaning, and we believed deeply what one of the Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, had written: that without feeling and emotion, nothing can really be known. He was echoing Thoreau, who said that a person has not really seen a thing who has not felt it. Or, as Janis Joplin famously sang: "You know you got it if it makes you feel good."
As budding businesspersons, we were inspired and energized by the psychologist Abraham Maslow and management professor Douglas McGregor. Maslow wrote that personal salvation is a byproduct of self-actualizing work and self-actualizing duty, and that the proper management of the work lives of human beings can improve them and improve the world. McGregor, who based much of his work on Maslow's research, portrayed managers as either authoritarian on the one hand, or collaborative and trustful of people on the other. Their published research proved that cooperative democratic principles applied to business management not only created better places to work but were also more profitable — that managers who were compassionate, helpful, friendly, altruistic, and democratic always produced better results. Maslow wrote that the "best way to destroy democratic society would be by way of not only political authoritarianism but of industrial authoritarianism, which is anti-democratic in the deepest sense."
What was the context that led us to attempt new lives and livelihoods during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the "hot war" in Vietnam? We had grown up cowering under our school desks during air raid drills, preparing for potential nuclear annihilation. Friends were leaving, fighting, and dying, and for who knew what? We knew there must be a better way to run the world, and it had to start by remaking the "lethal culture" of our elders.
But we lost our way. The giant corporate MegaMaw lifted its ugly head from its ceaseless devouring, looked us straight in the eye, and said, "No you don't" (see chapter 5). We did anyway ... for a while. But we were soon devastated by the deaths of progressive political leaders, brought down so suddenly and shockingly, and we were left lamenting what could have been. The Vietnam War dragged on as the positive and creative alternatives gave way to deep divisions and antagonism. Many of us gave it all up to despair, drugs, and deluded insurrections. And in our confusion we took the easy way out and lost ourselves by moving back into what the institutions of our culture had planned for us all along: safe careers, cake and circuses, bright shiny chariots, and commutes to tall buildings. Sure, you could say that we were on the losing side of the culture wars, or you could say it was simply time for us to grow up, move on, raise our families, and take our places of responsibility. Many of us turned inward, feeling that the only real change is spiritual and psychological, and that what is important is personal growth. But personal growth without an eventual return to the scene of the crimes to take up compassionate action is only escape into navel-gazing denial and the postponement of personal and social defeat. The goal is not either / or, it's both / and. It takes both personal growth and social involvement to live the purposeful, meaningful life that is the fulfillment of our human potential.
I still cherish the traditional values we lived then. We were on to something, with great creative, stumbling, desperate leaps into anything that was better, more life affirming. Those values derive from old-fashioned, responsible, conservative ideals that promote community service, spiritual understanding, mutual cooperation, and democratic decision making. And they didn't lose their hold on us. Instead of giving up on those values, I realized, along with many others, that it was going to take longer to see them bear fruit. A stubborn patience, an unwavering faith, a clear hope were going to be required, and we hunkered down for the long haul.
Finding and Creating Meaningful Work
Since those inspiring but disappointing days, many of us have incorporated those values and experiences into our careers and companies. The more celebrated successes have included Ben and Jerry's, The Body Shop, and a whole slew of companies involved with natural and organic foods, like Whole Foods Market. To establish my own credentials for writing a book like this, please allow me to briefly list what I've been up to these past few years.
The following describes most of the companies I've been personally involved with while practicing my own vocation. Each was organized to solve a social problem. They defined and held a sense of mission, even in the face of real-world, rough-and-tumble business enterprise. Some continue to be successful; some were successful for a while. I had various responsibilities within these companies, and in all cases it was a privilege and a joy to be a part of them.
Briarpatch Cooperative Market
The Briarpatch Co-op was created in the mid-seventies during difficult economic times and high unemployment to provide natural and organic food at more affordable prices. Local health food stores were expensive and many people had time on their hands, so the Briarpatch was established as a cooperative membership market. Members were provided with traditional groceries along with natural and organic foods. After I had moved on and the economy improved, members began finding work again. The staff's wages began rising along with prices, sales declined, and the store stopped making economic sense. It eventually closed down. All investment was returned to its members, all vendors were fully paid, and a joyful, successful community business had run its course. A social problem had been solved by a cooperative business. This has been the history of cooperatives generally, especially during hard times: a need is not being met well in the community, so the community members band together and create a solution themselves.
Smith & Hawken
I cofounded this company in 1979 because more and more organic farmers did not want to use pesticides and large tractors to farm with, but rather were relying on smaller rototillers and hand tools to cultivate and weed. Hand tools such as shovels and garden forks then being produced for home gardeners would break when brought into the more vigorous application of market gardening and small farming. We discovered that high-quality professional hand tools were still being used and manufactured in England. At first, importing these tools for small farmers and serious gardeners was a part-time venture, but it soon turned into a growing business that continues to this day.
Excerpted from To Be of Use by Dave Smith. Copyright © 2005 Dave Smith. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
"to be of use" by Marge Piercy,
1. Faith: True Belief,
2. Hope: Soul School,
3. Justice: Action Heroes,
4. Temperance: The Briarpatch Way,
5. Prudence: Reclaiming the Soul of Business,
6. Courage: Creative Action Heroes,
7. Love: Useful You,
Epilogue: Local Creative Action,
The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work,
Suggested Reading and Resource Links,
About the Author,