This summer, I watched Ali Wong’s standup comedy special, Baby Cobra. A fully pregnant Wong explains how she trapped her rich husband so that she wouldn’t have to work anymore. She calls feminism “the worst thing that ever happened to women,” and cites Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, admitting, “I don’t want to ‘lean in.’ I want to lie down.”
I laughed, and for days afterwards found myself imagining a life removed from the workforce. Three months later, I’m rearranging my life to figure out how to never have to work again.
Let me clarify. When I say I don’t want to work anymore, I don’t mean that I don’t want to do anything that feels like work again. I mean I don’t want to spend my life being a worker. Work can refer to “a job done for income,” but it can also mean “action taken to achieve a result.” I don’t mind work when it’s writing and facilitating dialogue and creating intentional space for the liberation of traditionally marginalized folks. I don’t want to work a job I don’t like — to afford things I don’t actually need — just because I convinced myself that I had no other choice.
I struggled to write this, because there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to come off as another one of those “lazy, entitled narcissist” millennials. There is fear within me when admitting that I don’t want to work — very likely my ego trying to protect me from coming off as some crazy aspiring Welfare Queen.
I have learned that the things of which I am most afraid are the things that might get me the most free. Therefore, it is my responsibility to name my fears out loud so they show themselves as what they really are: creations of my imagination. Admitting that I don’t want to work anymore is only scary because it’s a goal I don’t know how to meet. Anything is intimidating when you aren’t sure how it works — that’s human nature. Dreaming about a life in which I don’t have to have be employed in order to survive feels as absurd as trying to figure out how to relocate to the Moon.
The other day, I met a woman who was moving to Costa Rica with her two year old daughter, who was born there. Oakland was their last stop before they headed back. She explained that she wants to teach Black people about agriculture and how to be self-sustaining off the grid. “I’m on my Harriet Tubman,” she jokes, as the baby runs slow circles around the kitchen table, singing a song she made up. She’s doing it right, I thought.
I pictured Harriet Tubman, a dark-skinned woman with a gun in her hand, whispering in the dark to a small crowd of scared faces about how to survive the journey to freedom. I honor Harriet Tubman as my ancestor, and look to her legacy as a model for my own. Tubman believed in freedom so fiercely that it was not sufficient for her to simply be free; she wanted everyone to be free with her. She came back for slaves time and time again, but still, there were slaves who were too afraid to leave. She explained, “I freed a thousand slaved. I could have freed a thousand more if only they would have known they were slaves.”
In thinking about what it means to be free, I must consider what it means to be unfree. I have come to understand freedom as the ability to be self-determining, meaning if I am free, I and only I have the power to determine the course of my life. As I approach my thirties, childless and unmarried, I’m realizing that now is the time for me to make serious decisions about how I plan to spend the rest of my life. I’m not convinced that working in order to “make a living,” (read: working in order to live) is the only way to do it.
Having to work for money in order to spend money in order to survive is a cycle created by culture. Culture is a creation so pervasive that it masquerades as an unchangeable reality. This is the real-life Matrix: systems so intricately designed that we do not think to question whether they were, in fact, designed. Capitalism is a system designed to benefit the people who designed it. I’ve been trained to want the house, the car, the high-paying job, the clothes, the access to parties and events, the money, the money, the money.
I recently watched a documentary called Happy, in which filmmakers travel to more than a dozen countries searching for the meaning of happiness. If you haven’t seen it, watch it — not because it’ll tell you something you don’t already know, but because it seems we could all use the reminder: You don’t need much to be happy. The documentary revealed that people living in actual shacks had higher levels of happiness than people making upwards of $50,000 a year.
…If people who are living in houses that they built from found resources are happy, then why does it feel like I’m fighting for my life just to be able to afford my rent in this Los Angeles apartment? If I can be truly happy without all of my material possessions, then what I am doing with my life? Why aren’t all of us on weekly conference calls with everyone we love, trying to figure how out to live another way? Doesn’t the idea of a life spent reading and farming and teaching and learning and collaborating and building and meditating and art-making and community building sound like a life you want to live? Doesn’t it sound more free?
I know, I know… abandoning my worldly possessions to live in rural Central America sounds like some Eat, Pray, Love bullshit, and it’s problematic to think I can just roll up on somebody else’s land and call myself retired. I know it’s not realistic to think I can denounce money all together, but just because the how of the journey isn’t clear doesn’t mean the why isn’t worth it trying to find out.
Harriet Tubman’s words have become a rallying cry for me when I feel fear the deepest: If only they would have known they were slaves. “Because I am afraid” is not a good enough reason to not investigate how to liberate myself from that which binds me. I have started thinking critically about designing a life that doesn’t involve me succumbing to an endless cycle of earning and spending. I know it’s ambitious, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to be a slave that stays behind. I don’t want to spend my life working to survive if I don’t have to. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and think, “If only I would have known.”
Originally published at www.jamilareddy.com.