One of America’s worst crimes, according to cultural historian and social critic Morris Berman, is the cultivation of a “culture of hustling.” Hustling—the surrender of everything to market forces and the sacrifice of life to consumer culture—is an energizing and often enriching enterprise, but it is ultimately empty, depressing, and destructive.
Berman’s previous books, The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed, take the unpopular but persuasive view that the American empire is in freefall with no hope for recovery. But in his latest book, Spinning Straw Into Gold, he explains how he escaped this tedium of "unnecessary" and "stupid" pursuits and found meaning, purpose, and peace in his life by retiring to Mexico after years of working in academia at the University of New Mexico, the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and more.
The book eschews self-help clichés, and doesn’t presume to teach you to be happy. I spoke with Berman over email about embracing a reality that includes sadness, escaping poisonous American values, and how to stop obsessing over results and accept pleasure as it comes.
You write about the "unnecessary," "wasteful," and "stupid" routines, obsessions, and goals that you once pursued and that most of American culture preaches as the means of accessing the good life—careers, professional ambition, the drive for prestige, etc. You have left that behind for a peaceful "retirement" in Mexico, but during your retirement, you've written five books. How do you differentiate between pointless hustling and meaningful work? You write that more people should "let the universe do its thing." How do we do that and strive for work that gives our lives a sense of purpose and source of meaning?
The tipoff for me is somatic. Whenever a project comes to me, one that is right, that is genuine, I feel a kind of “shiver” in my body, and that tells me that it corresponds to something very deep in me, and that I need to pursue it. That has been my guide with literally every book I wrote. Trusting this kind of visceral reaction means that you are willing to let life “come and get you.” It means who you are is defined from the inside, not the outside. In terms of what’s really important, we don’t have much choice, and that’s as it should be. The decision is made by a larger energy or unconscious process, and when it’s right, you know it.
Most Americans have a dull sense that their lives are fundamentally “off”—because for the most part, they are. They hate their lives, but to get through the day, besides taking Prozac and consulting their cell phone every two minutes, they talk themselves into believing that they want to be doing what they are doing. This is probably the major source of illness in our culture, whether physical or mental.
In the film Definitely, Maybe, Ryan Reynolds works for an ad agency and says to himself at one point that he never imagined he’d be spending his days trying to convince people to buy Cap’n Crunch for their kids instead of Fruit Loops. As far as striving goes, Goethe wrote: “Man errs as long as he strives.” Sit still, meditate, just let the answer arise from the body. (It may take a while.)
So much of American culture is results obsessed. You write in your book about appreciating pleasures as they come, whether they are sexual, intellectual, or emotional. Do you think much of happiness is about learning to appreciate pleasure in the moment and not attaching it some tangibly measurable result?
It took me a long time to understand that I, or, my ego, had no idea what was best for me. Some part of happiness undoubtedly derives from a Zen enjoyment of whatever is in front of you, but a big part of it is knowing who you are and being that person. This is ontological knowing, and it’s very different from intellectual knowing.
Your message of detachment from materially measurable pursuits and your encouragement of leisure, creativity, and relaxed living is un-American (I mean this as a compliment). Why is American culture so addicted to speed, movement, action, and "progress"?
This is, in some ways, the subject of my book Why America Failed. America is essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years. It’s practically genetic, in the U.S., by now; the programming is so deep, and so much out of conscious awareness, that very few Americans can break free of it. They’re really sleepwalking through life, living out a narrative that is not of their own making, while thinking they are in the driver’s seat.
It’s also especially hard to break free of that mesmerization when everyone else is similarly hypnotized. Groupthink is enormously powerful. Even if it occurs to you to stop following the herd, it seems crazy or terrifying to attempt it. This is Sartre’s “bad faith,” the phenomenon whereby a human being adopts false values because of social pressure, and is thus living a charade, an inauthentic life. It’s also what happens to Ivan Illych in the Tolstoy story, where Ivan is dying, and reviews his life during his last three days, and concludes that it was all a waste, because he lived only for social approval.
You have a fascinating and helpful vocabulary for explaining your key concepts in this book. For those who have not read it, could you briefly describe what you mean by each term? First, and this is the most important one, you write about "awareness" and how it is essential for a meaningful life. How are you defining "awareness"? Awareness of what?
Awareness is the process of becoming transparent to yourself. You start to see through your programming, and the programming imposed by your culture. That’s major awareness; you could wind up derailing your whole life. But there’s also a level of awareness that is more detailed, and which can be cultivated as a practice—micro-awareness.