As most of you know, I used to counsel “emotionally disturbed” kids in a group home. That was my occupation. We used this system generally known as “behavior modification” whereby we rewarded good behavior and punished (to a degree) bad behavior, usually by changing the meter on what kinds of activities someone could do. There were behavioral levels someone would start out on in the morning based on their behavior the previous day. They were color-coded, running red, yellow, green, and then purple and finally gold, which could only be earned after sequential days on purple. For example, you couldn’t watch TV on red. You couldn’t watch TV after dinner on yellow. On gold, you didn’t have to stand at each doorway announcing yourself and waiting to be permitted to cross a threshold, as long as you told the staff where you were going and responded if they asked you to stop.
There were also behaviors which would warrant an immediate “level drop”. Contrary to my ex-brother-in-law’s assessment, this did not indicate that we would dump a kid off the stairs, but merely that they’d go from yellow to red or gold to purple if they swore or made a threat or tried to make a peer act out. And then violence meant “R&R”, a term I guess we were trying to reclaim for the bad, which would be resolution and restitution in this instance and prompt spending the rest of the day on red, usually after long periods of sitting time to calm down.
A lot of our job, other than navigating and assessing people through the process of earning their levels (surprisingly like APDA judging – the level sheets even looked like debate ballots), was about keeping people motivated to meet their goals and make their level. After all, most of the kids had grown up in households where, de facto if not overtly, bad behavior was rewarded and good behavior was punished. If you were quiet and humble and polite and got your homework done, you’d get neglected. If you set the house on fire and kicked the family dog and yelled and screamed at the table, then you’d get some attention. And in the world of six-year-olds whose parents are addicts, any attention is good attention, because it means you get fed or talked to or even physically contacted, even if it’s to be hit.
The hardest part of this engagement and motivation was finding ways to get people on red to believe that tomorrow would be a new day and they’d have some way of climbing out of their bad level. Often they’d be on red after spending significant portions of the day in R&R, which meant no points were being earned toward the next day’s level while they were in the quiet room (an Orwellian term if there ever was one) or restraint or sitting staring at a corner thinking about what they’d done. Usually this meant they’d spent the day not only being unstable and unhappy, but they knew that the next day was doomed to be another day on red – that it’d be 36 hours before they could watch TV or even think about going on the computer. And 36 hours is long enough for a well-adjusted adult human – for an anti-social adolescent, it’s an eternity.
One of the things my boss – an ex-drill-sergeant (literally) and college football player the size of a small house with the voice of an irate seal – was very good at was advising us what to do with these kids in these situations. He told us that the key to their motivation and improved behavior was engagement. Keeping them interested, distracted, putting their minds to something. In a word, keeping them occupied. The man was often a blunt instrument, but he had incredible insight into the mindsets of these kids, having worked in mental health facilities like ours and/or juvenile hall for the better part of two decades. And he implored us to, when times were stable, engage and stimulate the kids who were on red with the few activities always allotted to them – playing outside, playing board games, reading, talking with peers or staff. And there, over time, I learned a fundamental truth: that people act out when they’re bored. It’s something to do.
The human mind despises boredom. Probably more than pain, certainly more than sadness. The brain is too complex, too creative, too active, to tolerate monotony and absence of objects. It will create things to think about where none exist, it will foment processes and possibilities in a vaccuum. The only antidote to this is another element of our strategy in engaging red-level kids: exhaustion. Playing outside was not only good because it kept someone occupied, focused, and not-bored, but it also meant they came in too tired to create a ruckus. Adolescents have restless unspent energy in the best of times – abuse/neglect victims triply so. A kid who comes in tired from his day will be disinclined to take offense at a peer’s comment or a staff direction to a time-out. One who has nothing but seething surging energy beneath the surface will be ready to rumble.
This difference of exhaustion is why so many people can put up with assembly-line jobs or grocery-checking or long commutes, but buckle under the universally feared torture of solitary confinement. The capitalist structure of our country went through a really glorious period of getting humans to willingly accept and even embrace monotonous boredom because the tedium of their jobs created the byproduct of wearing them down. So even if they were getting repetitive stress injuries from twisting the same widget the same way and almost falling asleep from the 3,275th time making the same commute, they would arrive at home too beat to complain about it, having only just enough energy to awaken the next day and do it again. Meanwhile, those confined to small dark boxes alone with little or no exercise were slowly driven insane in their prisons.
Something’s been happening in this country the last three years. People have lost their occupations. No matter how small and crappy and minimally engaging their jobs were, they were still jobs that carried the heavily taxing byproduct of exhaustion. They were still something that took enough mental and physical energy to negate the urge to rebel, to foment discontent, to hold out for something better. But one by one and in droves, they were turned out of the opportunity to spend their energy flailing in the capitalist mill and instead consider the walls and corners and televisions and want-ads of a solitary existence.
Yes, some have turned to creativity. Some have expanded their minds to accept the lack of occupation as a gift and driven themselves to occupy themselves instead. But most, realistically, have not. Most people turned out of work by downsizing or offshoring or consolidation or automation have turned forlornly and blankly into an abyss of disinterested blandness. They wake each day not even sure what to do without someone telling them. They wander aimlessly through a directionless day, storebought distractions no longer working for them in light of the fact that they are only sufficiently entertaining or engaging for an exhausted person, but not someone with all their faculties at disposal. No longer exhausted, they become restless, agitated, rumbling with a soul-deep longing for something to do, be, create.
This, my friends, is the fundamental root of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is the quest for occupation. And despite my framing the question in the context of a job where I tried to modify violent kids’ behavior toward the more productive, I am very much in agreement with the principles and methodology of this budding revolution. The powers that seek to maintain order, stability, and the status quo in America have overlooked some fundamental tenets of how to stave off rebellion by controlling the masses. They have forgotten that bread must join circuses in sufficiently distracting the people, insisting instead on a system which puts bread at a premium as a mechanical rabbit to hold in front of the racers. They have allowed the attitude of those at the top to become perniciously elitist, rubbing superiority and greed in the face of all society. But most fundamentally, they have forgotten that people must have something to do or they will find something to do themselves. That people accept the terms of their social contract when they are too occupied or too tired to read the fine print. When people have nothing else to do but read the fine print because they are so bored, they will realize what they are forfeiting and rail against it.
What is most exciting and inspiring about the Occupy Wall Street movement (and its hundreds of offspring across cities across America) is that it does not overtly seek political solutions. Naysayers and corporate threshers want the occupiers to write their Congresspeople and go to the polls, knowing that anyone accessed in such a way has been bought and paid for to the point of complete imperviousness. Even those not explicitly on the payroll of corporate America are believers in the fundamental tenets of a system that rewards greed and punishes altruism, a way of aligning society to maximize the consolidation and stratification of wealth and power. It is blindingly obvious why this is so, as any student of history (from age eight on) could tell you: those in power like being there and will rig the game so they can stay there. And capitalism is one very effectively rigged game.
I myself have struggled mightily with the advent of the Occupy Wall Street movement, feeling pulled almost inexorably to the front lines of its tent encampments and yet not even setting foot as yet in the wake of my overwhelmed exhaustion at my full-time job. For me, unlike most, it is not the gun-to-my-head need for the pay of a job or even the expected pressure of finding fulfillment in one’s occupation, but rather the true motivation of actually loving my work and wanting to devote sufficient time to it that it brings me to the brink of capitulation and illness. I hung out with Ariel and discovered yesterday that I may be her only friend whose problems wouldn’t be largely or entirely solved by money. Which itself is no small factor in the Occupy movement, that reality. For me, I work because I want to and I love to, but it has thus far kept me off the sidewalks and streets of a rising tide that could sweep the whole world.
It is hard to feel twin obligations that are mutually exclusive and equally compelling. Even at Glide, I think I might have begged out of work to go join the protests, though there I may have felt the pull of alleviating the suffering that was driving so many to this brink. But I also must self-examine and recognize that each marginal person could be part of a tipping point in creating more change in this country than anyone born prior to this year could have imagined was possible. When I first saw the most recent Zeitgeist movie, I chuckled at the slightly naive vision of hordes of people gathering around Wall Street to give their money back in rejection of the system that printed it. Now it’s underway. And it feels wrong to not only not be a part of it, but to not be a spearhead.
And yet it feels like a hedge is in order too. It is unclear the direction or power the movement will have, whether it can be co-opted by money and politics and all the American powers that have resisted internal change before. And throwing away the best job I’ll ever have, one I created from scratch, and all my obligations to people I feel a deep personal bond with, for what could be a week and a jail term depending on how things bounce, seems crazy.
But it only seems crazy because I am occupied. Were I not, it would be the most obvious thing in the world.
I will continue to wrestle and struggle with the question, continue to dance on the razor’s edge of conundrum. I can’t really see myself abandoning everything to go live in the encampments, at least not yet, so the Rutgers debaters reading this should let out their breath. But there’s a big part of me that feels I should anyway. And I know it’s not zero-sum – I know I can go try to participate without sacrificing it all. And I will. More than anything, though, we need to develop a way that people who are occupied can still Occupy. We need a day where everyone who still wants or has to go to work can show their solidarity and support. Sometimes revolutions can’t all involve defection from the military, because they need people in the military to be quietly sympathetic so they can make sure that institution changes with the rest of society. This revolution needs occupied people too in order to make all the changes necessary.
If those on top of this precipitous pyramid know what’s good for them, they will create new incentives and occupations. They will come up with some way to motivate the masses and make use of their time and brains. But it can’t be through capitalism, at least the way it’s been manifest in society so far. The market is editing out jobs, ensuring they never return. We need a new system to occupy our minds. Until then, we must occupy the streets.