The Greater of Two Goods

“The greater of two goods.”

How often do you hear this phrase? Never? Me neither. Its opposite is so much more familiar.

The presidential circus is not the only context in which we urge self and others to choose “the lesser of two evils.” The trouble is, if you keep choosing the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil. You’re still giving it strength. Which means that next time, the two evils you’re choosing between will be even worse. (Does evil exist? Not really. But I’ll pretend it does, for the sake of this exploration.)

Right now, I’m noticing a “lesser of two evils” frame around my relationship to making money. For the past couple years, I’ve had a gig that pays more per hour than anything I’ve done before. It does not feed my soul. It does not, in any recognizable way, promote a more beautiful world. Also, I can stand it. And, because it pays well per hour and demands my attention only part of the year, it allows me vast swaths of time unchained.

This is part of the strategy Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez suggest, in Your Money or Your Life. They say, take the highest-paying gig you can find (regardless of how it contributes to, or detracts from, your community). Cut your expenses. Save. Invest. At some point, your nest egg will be big enough that the interest therefrom will cover your much reduced expenses, and you’ll be free not to work for money anymore. Meaning, you’ll be able to volunteer. Be an artist. Give back.

I am not fully implementing the YMOYL strategy, in the sense that I have not cut expenses to the bone (this is not how we roll, in our family unit, though it has indeed been how I’ve rolled when I was alone) and I have not invested money in interest-bearing instruments. In fact, the idea of living off interest, while “giving back,” seems perverse – you ride the extraction machine to meet your basic needs, then reverse some of the damage it does through work you do for free (this is the model underlying most philanthropy). However, I do see the use in accepting that you will not make money pursuing your vocation; therefore, you might as well make money at the thing that offers your vocation the greatest support, and the least interference. (It’s not that money never meets vocation – it’s just that insisting on this confluence could cause vocation to flee.)

The other option I see, for making money as a writer (and editor), is to establish my own practice. This would mean lots of time devoted to admin and marketing, in pursuit of opportunities to use my words in ways not necessarily aligned with my vocation. Sure, I’d be free to say no to Coca-Cola or Entergy (should they come knocking, which they would not) – but, most likely, the business of running a business would eat up most, if not all, of my writing energy. And require that I spend many additional hours at a screen. Bye-bye, vocation? Maybe.

At the moment, the option of keeping my current gig seems like the lesser of two evils. However, it may be less secure than I think: the business model of the company I’ve been working for may be changing in a way that doesn’t favor me; I may have done things to plummet my star, as a result of a semi-conscious loss of heart. Crisis may be marching nigh, to make me do what I want to do anyway.

Which is? What are the goods here? What are at least two good scenarios, encompassing this question of money? What are my equivalents of a surprise victory for the Greens, or mass defection from the story of two parties?

Well, I am realizing that most opportunities to contribute (in context of money or not) have reached me through relationships established for other purposes. That is, relationship comes first, opportunity follows; those who know and love me are best able to predict what gigs might fit.

I am also aware that, while I despise work for its own sake, I am in no way averse to work itself. And – as living at Medicine Wheel reminded me – in a healthy collective context there are ample, varied options to contribute, in ways that foster joy, and health, and ties.

So. Two scenarios. One: I build a paying writing practice by extending and strengthening my web of relationships in my community (Beacon and environs). I start that writing group I keep thinking about (and a reading series at the local bookstore); I offer my services to people and businesses within walking distance. My reputation grows quickly, within a fairly tight weave. Two: I move, or partially move, to Earthaven, where cash needs are low and opportunities for meaningful (if not lucrative) work abound.

Truly, though, it seems that the difference between considering evils and imagining goods is that the evils are so much more familiar, so much more easily summoned. It may be that the best I can do, in service of goods, the greater good, the chance to choose the greater of more than one good, is accept that such a world is possible. Open to it. Let go.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

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