The Pursuit of Happiness in the Trump Economy

His life started on a dairy farm.  Apart from a stint in the United States Navy, he spent the better part of the next five decades eking out a modest sustenance from milk production.  Then come the summer of ‘85, a young boy was killed in a tractor accident behind the barn.  A few months later it was almost the loss of his own hand: mangled in a hay bailer.  The attending surgeon, a veteran medic in Vietnam, said it was one of the worst injuries he had ever seen.

That was when Dad began to wonder if he should still be a farmer.

Maybe it was providential.  The drought of 1986 wiped out many farms across America.  By then Dad had found employment at a granite quarry, where he rose to become the head of maintenance before he retired in 2008.

But none of that was ever Dad’s career.

He discovered his true calling in the early 90s.  A book about knifemaking caught Dad’s eye.  It became something he wanted to take a stab at, pun irresistibly intended.

Those first forays were crude: little more than filings from rusted bits of saw blade.  But over the next two decades Dad dedicated himself to the art.  He built a shop in which to practice his hobby.  He always took advantage of opportunities to learn more about knifemaking technique.  In time he became a master of multi-layered Damascus steel.  When Dad wanted to install a power hammer in the shop, he designed and built one.  So too did he build his own propane-fueled forge.  And his anvil.  And he devised a way to produce Damascus steel with greater speed and precision than before.

By the time Dad passed away before Thanksgiving in 2014, none had doubt about what his lifetime career had been.  The knives he had made as commissioned works were innumerable.  Those he had made simply for the joy of giving to friends and family, even more beyond count.  And they were as beautiful to the eye as they were practical in the hand.

Toward the end of Navy service Dad was given an opportunity to become involved with computer technology at its very beginning.  He chose to return to North Carolina.  To start a family and find some happiness.  He ended up with more fulfillment and fame than many men get to have… or ever bother to pursue.

I don’t think Dad ever read anything by Joseph Campbell, but in its own way his life magnificently fulfilled the criteria of the heroic archetype.  “Follow your bliss,” said the author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces.  Campbell’s understanding of the drive for self-completeness has even greater bearing on the average person than it did for mythical warriors such as Perceval.  For each of us there is a Grail to achieve.  We deserve the freedom to pursue it.

Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election because even on a subconscious level, we new that Americans had lost unforgivably too much of that freedom. Something we once had was gone and we were frantic to get it back.

For decades Republicans and Democrats alike had promised, in their respective vernaculars, comfortable conditions of being.  Too many of them had already forgotten the lessons of communist Russia, that had also guaranteed its citizens a safe existence.

Then the people of the Soviet Union became sick and tired of mere existence.  That wasn’t life.  They wanted blue jeans.  They wanted Michael Jackson tapes.  They wanted toilet paper that wasn’t semi-raw wood pulp.  They didn’t want to have to spend hours in line at the GUM department store in downtown Moscow to buy that toilet paper.  They wanted to forge their own destinies.  That is what Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II understood and tapped into.  It was a rising tide of the need to grow and become more than what one already was and when the Politburo could hold it back no more, it burst with abandon across Eastern Europe.

More than either of the two parties would like to admit, Americans have felt denied that same freedom.  Those feelings are justifiable.

For decades, Washington has assumed that people want government-mandated comfort.  Americans saw Hillary Clinton as the embodiment of that assumption.  And they turned against it. 

People remembered that America had once been better, before a generation’s worth of choking buildup.  And for whatever flaws the man possessed, they saw Donald Trump as a break from the pattern.  As a desperate arrow to fire toward a chink in the dragon’s scale.

Eighteen months after Trump took office, the domestic economy has roared to life as few dared imagine.  Long-dormant factories have been aroused and new factories are being built, including Foxconn’s new facility in Wisconsin that will employ 13,000 people.  Unemployment rates are at the lowest in decades, especially among the black and Hispanic communities.  Wages are improving.  Taxes are being slashed.  There are long-needed competitive tariffs and trade policies.  Retailers are reporting record profits.

And yet all of those are measly dividends compared to the true riches about to be poured forth.

The American people are beginning to discover the pleasure of having both more money and more time.  They are getting to devote more of their free hours to their families, to their communities, or to their hobbies.  For many this is will be enough for contentment, and that is good.  For others, they will want to know if they can go further.  They are driven to find their limits and dreaming to exceed them.  They are daring to evolve and discover the individual that he or she is meant to be.

The American people love this improving economy, because it’s enabling them to improve themselves.  They have not been able to enjoy that in a very long time. 

For President Trump, that alone has almost certainly assured his re-election.  However beleaguered the man has become to the press and late-night comedians, many more Americans than before are too busy with their own lives to care.  They ignore the chicanery inside the Beltway and consider their own aspirations, for a change.  It is an inebriating freedom and thus far, no opposing political figures have proposed an attractive counter to it.  Indeed, the more that the pundits and the celebrities ridicule Trump and his supporters, the more they themselves are becoming ignored.

The politicians erred in thinking that people want mere work.  They require work, but they need purpose and they want to follow their dreams.  Yes, there are jobs.  And yet more important than jobs, there are callings.  Americans are increasingly becoming free again to pursue those callings.  And as their spirits revitalize, so too will American culture with it.

Case in point: the film industry has stagnated.  Hollywood isn’t taking risks. But throughout the hinterlands there is undiscovered talent.  The major studios will ignore that new talent at their peril.  All that has held them back is the need to make a living.  Once there is a surplus of their own time and money they are going to lead the way to a box-office renaissance.  That the Trump-era economy figures into the equation will be largely ignored.  Then again, few ever note that Reagan’s policies brought a lot of vibrancy into the 80s.  All kids today seem to know is that it was the only decade cool enough to set Stranger Things during.

It’s that “pursuit of happiness” thing quill-penned into the Declaration of Independence.  It’s the freedom to not be content with one’s station in life, and to be able to do something about it.  A person may be born into a place and circumstance, but nobody has to be locked in for life as a prisoner to that circumstance.  It’s the difference between mere job and a life’s career.

That’s what Dad did.  He wasn’t content to merely exist.  He began his life as a dairy farmer and when he passed he had become a renowned and respected artisan.  That so many knives stamped “R.R. KNIGHT” have found their way across America and even Canada and Europe is testament to that.  He followed his bliss and found it.

That is what any of us should be able to follow after, too.  Maybe we are getting to afford to learn how to again.

Christopher Knight has been a writer, filmmaker, teacher, politician, computer technician, reporter, meat slicer, plastic factory worker, and too many other things.  He still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.  Visit his blog and find him on Twitter.

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