The Quandary of Modern Life Jul 2, 2012
This is my favorite book by John Steinbeck. The life of Ethan Hawley, the main character, is simple and complex. He is a working-class man with a blue-blood lineage. In the small town in which he lives – his name rings of history and power – his ancestors were the founders of the village and basked in the glory of their status and wealth for many years. Not so for Ethan. He now lives in the shadow of his great name – no longer having the funds or status to support his legacy.
The real story of this book, for me, however, was the clash between his status and the material wants/needs/demands of his family. This is the America conundrum – regardless of how well we do financially – there is always more stuff (bigger, faster, shinier, newer) waiting around the corner – contentment is elusive. Ethan is bombarded daily with the wants of his children – from the latest cereal they’d seen on TV to stories of the vacations their neighbors had recently taken – all followed with – “can we…?” Of course Ethan wants to provide these things for his family – he simply doesn’t have the means or the opportunity to do so.
Then opportunity presents itself. To seize it, however, Ethan must trade his morals and ethics for profit. He takes advantage of a “friend” and profits greatly – enabling him to finally provide the many goodies his family has craved. We do not learn much about the family after the fact – the impact this action had on Ethan, on his relationships with his family or the community. We assume he profited and “lived happily ever after.”
The real question, posed by Steinbeck throughout this story is: What would you do to profit – to attain the American Dream? Is the cost worth it? Is the “dream” worth it?
All of us are asked to do things in our jobs and in our daily living that challenge our personal morality or ethics. Corporations do many good things, but also, as economic engines, they often do things that are pro-business and anti-people: mass lay-offs, off shoring, out-sourcing, questionable environmental ethics, and manipulative tactics to gain position or market share. People are at the levers of these acts – people who must make decisions that are gut wrenching on a human-scale, but smart business and of great benefit to stock holders.
Everyday, we purchase millions of dollars of products that are produced in factories that would violate every labor law we have here in the states – yet we are able to purchase it cheaply, which is helpful when one is on a limited budget.
I guess I find it important to know, and understand, the complexity of a global world. There is much good, and much bad. Are we to simply accept the bad and strive for our own personal gain? Should we focus on those we help – our employees, stockholders and customers – and ignore those who may suffer as a result of our behavior? It seems that all human activity has some negative and positive outgrowth – perhaps the best we can do is the best we can do.
This is, perhaps true on a global level – we can feel for the woman who worked to make the five-dollar t-shirts we are buying at Wal-Mart – but can we, individually, change this system? I don’t know. To a large degree, I think, we are all individuals stuck in a monstrous-global economic machine that exists outside of any ethical or moral code. The name of the game is – profit. I am all for the free market – 100% - however, I do not like to see, nor do I celebrate and entity (private or public) that serves itself first, often at the expense of the individual. The Leviathan-state (or Corporation, or any organization) rarely benefits those it professes to serve.
It seems much more complicated, however, on a personal level. The real question is: What would you do to your neighbor to attain the brass ring? That is what Steinbeck presented with perfect clarity – the dramatic change between the Puritanical culture that had passed and the new age of economic ambition and material want. The old Ethan held to the Golden Rule – Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do To You. The new Ethan held to the Gecko Rule – Do It To The Other Before They Do It To You.
The future for such a culture seems bleak.
This book is an excellent meditation on personal ethics. It is definitely worth a tumble.
Peace & God Bless!