I was recently in downtown Los Angeles on a trip with my wife . We had found ourselves in that strange limbo between it being too early to head to the airport but not really having anything else to do. We weren’t terribly hungry but decided to fill our time with food, reasoning that we wouldn’t want to be hungry on the flight.
We found across the street from the Los Angeles Public Library a very tall building that indicated numerous restaurants within. We entered and, following the signs, were directed to a sub level two floors below the ground floor where awaited a sprawling food court complex with probably 15 or so restaurants.
We entered a Togo’s sandwich shop and were well served by an efficient staff, particularly a young woman who could not have been more than 23. Perhaps it was her kind and upbeat nature that caused my pause for thought, but I began to wonder about her life, and then the lives of the others working behind the counter, in relation to the great questions of human existence.
What is it to be human?
How are we to live a life of meaning?
What is it to live a good life or a happy life?
Why are we here?
What’s the point?
And what quality of life must a person have in order to engage with such questions?
I then rounded the corner to the general dining area of the food court where my concerns were only further reinforced by inspirational signs.
“Why not learn to fly?”
“Life is worth living. Not life, but good life.”
“Stop and smell the dandelions.”
I suppose a one might ask, how important is it that people grapple with the mysteries and complexities of human existence? I personally think that it is important, for many reasons, but if nothing more it gives a person a better understanding of the world and their place in it. I wondered, how realistic is it that these people working at fast-food establishments can live a life that makes it possible to “live curiously” or contemplate what it is to not just live, but live a good life, as the food court signs suggested?
How does one have the resources to contemplate what it is to be human when they work what would be a subsistence wage job? I don’t want to get all Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on you, but employees at this restaurant, who work 6 to 8 hours a day in a sunless, subterranean establishment, in a job that is not fulfilling, for a wage that is by no means livable, where they must drive or bus into work from an area of town which likely has high crime and stress, far removed from the wealth of the downtown district, have any time or emotional energy to devote to mental self improvement? It is a condemning sentence to a life in an intellectual ghetto where there is little hope of a way out.
I grant you that the previous paragraph has within it many assumptions. Perhaps assembling fast-food sandwiches is a fulfilling job as any, and perhaps a life, such as the young girl that sparked this possibly lives, is one of satisfaction, but there’s much evidence that would suggest otherwise.
This, of course, is a struggle that has been going on for millenniums, really since the advent of civilization, the benefits of the haves versus the have-nots. It’s not going away either and likely ever will. I also understand the stratification of society, the perceived value of professions and labor, and the roles that must be played by us all to have society continue as it does. But that does mean we should not struggle to correct it as best we can?