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How You Make a Living and How You Make a Life are Two Different Things

How You Make a Living and How You Make a Life are Two Different Things June 24, 2021

It’s a little late for a graduation speech, even the kind of faux graduation speeches we see every year in May and early June. In any case, I’m unlikely to ever be asked to give a graduation speech. But if I was, this is the speech I’d give, more or less.

The good news is that what I have to say isn’t just applicable to graduating seniors. I’ve mentioned it before a time or two, most notably in 9 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was A New Pagan. The last item on that list was “how you make a living and how you make a life are two different things.”

Joseph Campbell (who was helpful to me even though he had some very problematic ideas) told us to “follow your bliss.” Liberal Christian theologian Frederick Buechner said your calling in life “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

These are good thoughts. But bliss doesn’t pay the rent. Deep gladness doesn’t put food on the table.

That doesn’t mean we have to be mercenaries. It does mean we have to figure out how to live the way we want to live, and also do the things we’re called to do.

Compass Awen Cernunnos

The necessity of making a living

I know some of you are bothered by the idea that people have to “make a living.” Why can’t we simply live? In a world of abundance, where some hoard obscene amounts of wealth, why can’t we arrange our socio-economic systems to insure everyone’s basic needs are met, freeing us all to follow our bliss?

There is merit in that proposal. There are also valid counterpoints. I could probably write an entire post on this, but that’s not the point here.

The point is that at least for now, we live in a world where we have to pay rent, buy groceries, and fund our own artistic expressions. Life works better when we deal with reality head-on, whether we like it or not.

Whether you’re starting your post-school life, re-starting after finishing a degree on a non-traditional timeline, or simply re-evaluating your life, ask yourself “how much do I need to live the way I want to live?”

Pursuing endless wealth is a recipe for obsession, overwork, and a generally miserable life. But there’s a huge gap between abject poverty on one end and the 1% on the other. Where do you need to be on that spectrum? Where do you want to be?

And how do you structure your work so that you have both the time and the money to do the things you’re called to do?

You need what you need

Our mainstream society worships the rich. But it also glamorizes poverty, particularly poor people who don’t complain about the structural injustices that cause so many to be poor in the first place. And there’s the idea that truly “spiritual” people don’t care about material things.

Ignore the people who say these things. Or better yet, tell them to STFU.

There are light years of difference between a televangelist with a private jet and a minister, priest, or teacher – whether Pagan or Christian or anything else – with a decent house, a reliable car, and the ability to travel occasionally. “Spiritual” people deserve nice things as much as anyone else.

You need what you need, and you are the only person who can make that judgement – and the only one who has the right to make it.

Not expensive wine, but good wine

The reality of “professional Pagans”

I’ve written a blog since 2008. I reached the threshold where Patheos started paying me (not much, but it’s something) in 2014. I’ve published two books through a major publisher, one of which sells fairly well by Pagan standards. I teach classes, I do readings and consultations, and other work that brings in a few dollars.

In 2020 – twelve years after I started – I almost exceeded the federal poverty level. Almost, but not quite.

Most of the people I know who are full-time authors and teachers have a spouse who works a regular job – if nothing else, to provide health insurance. Those who don’t live very modestly. The few who are doing well have unique stories that can serve as inspiration, but they’re not something that can be copied.

I’ve made a good – though far from trouble-free – career in Industrial Engineering. But as good as STEM is, it’s not for everyone. No amount of money is worth going to a job you hate every day.

Coming out of college, I had a couple people try to talk me into a career in technical sales. Good technical sales people can make a lot of money. But they’re mostly paid on commission, and bad technical sales people don’t make much of anything. I would starve if I was in sales. I think I’d rather starve.

How much income do you need? How can you get it? Does that still allow you to pursue your dreams? If so, you have a plan. If not, it’s time to re-evaluate your goals or your plans or both.

Religious work deserves to be compensated

Let’s get this out of the way now: religious and magical work is work that deserves to be compensated.

Nobody would think of going to the witch who lives in the forest to ask for a cure or a curse without bringing something as payment, even if it was just a chicken, or perhaps an undead monkey.

Writing books is work and authors deserve to be paid, not to have their work stolen by digital pirates.

Catholic priests and Protestant ministers don’t charge directly for their services, but they’re paid by their churches and pastoral counseling is part of their job duties. Up to a point, anyway. After a while, they’ll tell you “you need to see a mental health professional.”

I give away a lot of material on the blog. My online classes are probably underpriced, and scholarships are available for those who can’t pay. I answer brief, specific, and occasional questions by e-mail at no charge – that’s part of my obligation as a priest.

If you want a reading or a private consultation my rates are $75 for a half hour or $100 for an hour.

I can’t make a living doing this, so I work a fulltime regular job. But I value my time, and so I charge for it. And I make no apologies to those who think money is dirty or impure. I wrote about this last month in the context of Pagan groups, but the same applies to individuals. Those who think everything should be free may have a valid point in theory, but they ignore the reality of our world.

I prefer to deal with reality head-on, and I encourage you to do the same.

books John Beckett

Some things shouldn’t be sold

It’s one thing – a good and necessary thing – to compensate a religious professional for their time and labor. It’s another thing entirely to attempt to buy something sacred, something you aren’t necessarily entitled to have.

If you want me to officiate your wedding, expect to pay the going rate (unless you’re a member of one of my local groups, because I probably owe you favors, or I will at some point in the future). Writing a ceremony, attending a rehearsal, and performing the ceremony all require time and labor, which deserve to be compensated.

If you want me to officiate your initiation, I won’t accept payment. There’s more work in an initiation than in a wedding, but you’re not just asking me to consecrate a union you’ve already made. You’re asking me to facilitate a spiritual experience and enable a transformation. That’s a sacred obligation, and I can’t allow money to even slightly influence my judgement as to whether or not you’re ready for initiation.

There are some Afro-Caribbean initiations that cost thousands of dollars, but that’s because of all the sacrifices involved them. If your initiation requires extraordinary expenses, you should expect to cover them. But I cannot charge for my part in an initiation.

To be clear: I don’t perform initiations for people I don’t know, and know well. Don’t e-mail asking me to do it. But for those I do, I don’t charge. I can’t.

You are always beholden to your patrons

This is an example of the downside to making a living through your spiritual work. Whether you call them patrons, clients, students, or customers, if your livelihood is dependent on someone else, you have to keep them happy – collectively if not always individually.

All of us with a public presence do that to a certain extent. Writers want to be read, so we write what we think people will read. But if I write something unpopular enough to lose readers, I’ll lose tens of dollars. I won’t lose my house. Or if I’m not up to writing, then I don’t have to write. I wrote two books. I will probably write a third book someday, but it’s not in progress yet, and I don’t know when it will be. I’m not dependent on my book income to survive.

I do not intend to imply that my professional Pagan friends and colleagues would ever compromise their integrity for money. I’m certain the ones I consider my friends have not and would not. Most of the ones I don’t know as well probably wouldn’t either. But I am sure they’ve had to make some hard choices.

Time is not unlimited

This is the downside to what amounts to working two jobs (one paying and one passionate). You work 40 hours a week (if you’re lucky), plus commuting. You have to eat and sleep and at least occasionally binge Netflix or whatever else you use for decompression and enjoyment. That doesn’t leave a lot of hours for your calling.

Is that enough? If it’s not, then you’re looking at more hard choices: finding alternate sources of income, or a lower standard of living, or both.

What I’m able to do is enough for me, at least for now… though at times it gets to be too much. I have a ways to go before retirement, but I’m already thinking about how I can structure my days once I no longer have a regular job.

Make informed choices and make them mindfully

This is the “takeaway” portion of the graduation speech.

I suffered through almost 20 years of my professional career, because I thought I was supposed to be getting rich. Only I didn’t want to do the things it takes to be rich. After I discovered my true calling in my early 40s, I struggled with it for years because I couldn’t figure out how to make a living by being a professional Pagan. Eventually I figured out that I needed to keep my paying work and my sacred work separate.

I hope it won’t take you, hypothetical new graduate, so long to figure this out.

How do you want to live? How much money will that take? How can you get it – consistently and reliably?

And also, what is your passion in life? What are you called to do?

How do you balance these two needs? Can you find a way to do them simultaneously? Can you find a way to make a living from your magic, your religion, your art? Some people can – maybe you’re one of them.

But if you can’t, that doesn’t mean abandoning your dreams. It means finding a mundane way to finance your dreams.

My way works for me, but there is no one right answer here. Maybe you need to pursue your passions, costs be damned. Maybe you’ve been claimed and there are things you simply have to do. Or maybe you’re still trying to figure out what your true calling is, and you’re just trying to find a good way to pay the bills until you do. And maybe after you do.

Make informed choices and make them mindfully.

Support those whose work is helpful to you

If this really was a graduation speech, this portion would be directed to the parents and friends in the audience.

Even paid spiritual work doesn’t pay much. Those of us who do it, do it because it’s our calling – we can’t not do it. I can’t not write. I need to teach. I feel an obligation to answer questions, at least reasonable questions asked in good faith. For all this work, I make a small fraction of minimum wage.

So do the other bloggers, authors, and teachers in our community. I can’t speak for the artists and musicians, but the ones I know well struggle to get by.

If someone’s work is important to you, support them. Buy their books, take their classes, join their Patreons (I don’t have a Patreon, but many others do). And if you ask them for favors, pay them. I occasionally ask my colleagues brief questions of the kind I answer for free, but if I want them to do anything more than answer off the top of their head, I pay their stated rates.

Nobody gets into this for the money. But money is still a necessity in our society. If they’re helpful to you, be helpful to them in return.

Do great things, and pay the rent

Maybe you know what you want and how to get it. Maybe you’re still trying to figure out one or both parts of that. That was me at my graduations at 18 (high school), 22 (college), and 31 (graduate school).

I can’t fault the decisions I made – I did the best I could with the information I had at the time. But it took me till I was almost 40 to understand that my true calling is as a Druid and a priest, not as a corporate executive. It took me another 10 years to figure out that I was better off with a regular job to finance the spiritual job.

I wish I had known that for many people, how you make a living and how you make a life are two different things.

And now you know.

And that’s the end of this speech. Go forth, hypothetical new graduate, and do great things… how ever you decide to pay the rent while you do.

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