The conservative objection to “safety net” programs such as Unemployment Insurance, food assistance, and so on, is that they discourage work. Why work for money, the argument goes, if you can get money for doing nothing?
Here is a social experiment. Let’s say I offer you a temporary job that pays an okay hourly wage, maybe what you’d get working a low-level office temp job. In addition to that, you will be fed one if not two meals – and the food is actually good. You will be paid for a minimum of eight hours per day, even if you are sent home early. More likely, however, you will be there longer than eight hours – maybe twelve or thirteen hours. You will be paid time and a half for overtime, of course. Now as for the actual work: for the most part, you are going to be given nothing to do whatsoever. You can read. You can play on your iPhone. All we ask is that you stay in this holding area so that we can find you, in case we have something for you to do. It’s outdoors, and you have the option of hanging out in this tent or outside – better wear sunscreen. Chances are good that you will not be given anything to do. This assignment can end at any time.
For a lot of people this sounds too good to be true. Get paid to sit around, read a book, text people, socialize with other people? Why work for money if you can get paid for this?
Try it for a few days.
There were about ten of us spending 13-hour days at the base camp of a movie set in Albuquerque -- the movie is The Host -- and on day one everybody had a grand time hanging out, getting to know each other. A guy named Eric got some tunes going on his “smart phone,” people got some sun and snacked on whatever the catering service left for us. There were people in between jobs, retirees, people taking a day off work to be an extra in a Hollywood movie, a few college students. As the day wore on, there was an occasional sigh of boredom, always countered with a reminder that we were being paid. “Best job in the world,” someone said. The unspoken message is, you have nothing to complain about if someone is giving you money.
Inconspicuously, I spent part of the day doing zazen in a chair alternating with walking meditation; and the rest of the day socializing, waiting, sending text messages to friends.
On day two, spirits were still bright. Everyone got along, and most had found the people they preferred to hang out with. A couple of loners set themselves up with books, or moved their chairs to the outer perimeter of the base camp to enjoy the mountains and the sunshine. The refrain of the morning was “Do you think they’ll use us today?”
The “they” was hard to pinpoint. The director who had supposedly chosen each of us personally from our headshots? The attractive woman named Danielle who seemed to be in charge of our “holding area,” bustling around talking into a radio all day? Other crew members and wardrobe staff darting in and out of the tent? No one had information for us, and they looked too busy to ask.
Late into day two, the jokes and humor centered around the absurdity of our work situation, the boredom, and wondering if we would even be given anything to do. At one point that day, we were loaded into a shuttle and driven to the set, lined up outdoors for several minutes, and three of us were chosen for filming. The rest of us were sent back, where we resumed sitting around, holding vigil in the sun.
Bored people are dangerous. We actually talked about rearranging everything in the tent. At another point, we talked about hiding and seeing what the crew would do when they noticed.
“Hey, we’re getting paid!” was still a refrain, but the tone became edgy. Boredom is tricky for most people. If you practice zen , boredom kind of disappears as a problem: we enter into it, instead of trying to distract ourselves or fill the void with something. Boredom makes most people uncomfortable, because they feel like their situation is incomplete. They want something to do or they want entertainment, stimulation. Boredom augments the endless process of desire. (Retreats do that, too, by design.) I found it interesting because the technology we have these days allows for entertainment under almost any circumstances: even out here on the mesa, you could watch movies on a small laptop computer, you could surf the internet on your phone, you could access a library of books with one electronic device – and still people suffered from boredom.
They wanted something to do. Some found things to do: spontaneous litter patrols, things like that. And the shallow comfort that they were being paid for their time seemed to be less convincing to everybody as the sun moved in the sky. No one knew if they would be called to work tomorrow. Some admitted that they hoped they would not.
By day three, giddy hilarity prevailed. “Here we are! The featured extras! The director chose us!” Even those who had been the most comfortable, who had brought work to do while waiting around, shared in the laughter at our situation. Something in the culture forbade outright complaining: it was gauche to be disappointed that we weren’t working. “We’re being paid.” And yet there was dissatisfaction. It felt strange to be told we were needed for something, and then to be paid for doing nothing. It wasn’t an outrage, just somehow dissonant. It felt like a social experiment – one of the many things people joked about.
On the third day, we were all "wrapped" for good -- having never made it in front of a camera.
Upon completing our check-out procedure, Eric said, "But hey! The director chose us!"