by Lael Ewy
Like most Americans, I have internalized the Puritanical notion that work equals virtue. I actually feel bad when my job serves up a few hours of unburdened time. This is odd for an academic: I should be dreaming of times like these, chances to explore and read the articles and books that have been backing up on my list, sometimes for decades. Reading these things, I know, makes me a better academic, not a worse one, one who is not only more knowledgeable but less stressed, one better able to respond to my students’ needs and to the massive expansion of my field of study.
Yet, the thought nags on me that these hours are ill-spent because they’re not what I wouldn’t otherwise be doing and therefore not “work” as such. Instead of embracing the old maxim that “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” I feel guilty for being lucky enough to live it.
What’s at work here (all puns intended) is more than just the absorption of Puritanical culture. The Puritans came by their ideas about the value of work honestly; in turn the same sickness had been visited upon Muslims and Jews. The source is the Fall of Man, expulsion from Eden, the story that resolves in humans being fated to till the soil for our sustenance instead of just plucking it from the trees. The latter state is to be without sin; to toil is to suffer in a manner fit for the human condition. Because of this, not suffering through labor seems like cheating. Beyond the binary of good and evil, not working is flouting the very word of God, the decree that makes us all who we know ourselves to be: united in the misery of work.
I grew up within Christianity, and so I believe this, but I also don’t believe this. The guilt I feel is as much a sense that if my bosses knew what I was up to, or worse yet, if the fiscal conservatives who run the state that pays my salary knew, I’d be fired. I have just as, or more, deeply internalized the expectation that work equals misery placed on the conditions of my employment by my employer as I have the cosmological fear that my laziness is a sin. In doing so, I have posited the recapitulation of the Great Chain of Being that puts in their respective places those who mete out misery and those who must suffer it.
Our sense of virtue in working hard and for long hours, then, also contains a certain pride in having borne a burden. It gives us the right to say “Your blues ain’t like mine,” bragging rights for having put up with more pain than the next guy.
We see extreme forms of this in cultures of overwork that have arisen in the financial industry, high-caliber law firms, in Korea and Japan. It isn’t healthy, of course: we’re trading our long-term physical health and mental/emotional wellbeing for short-term monetary gains and the twisted satisfaction of having beaten the competition. Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and even various forms of cancer have all been linked to overwork, but that doesn’t stop us: the need to show that we are “achievers” is too compelling, the need to not be seen as lazy and no-account too acute.
As I write this, I’m down on sleep, and I’m feeling a little guilty, as I’m letting my students have a “work day,” where they work on their projects and I let myself be available for questions. They have a big assignment coming up, and they really do need time to work on it, but it also means I am not in front of the room, pontificating, managing discussions, showing off my brilliance as an experienced interpreter of text. I also know full well that I’ll still have to grade whatever they produce, so I’m really just deferring work, not eliminating it.
I also know that better work is quicker and easier to grade, so in some ways, I’m saving myself work while giving my over-extended students more of a chance to show me what they can do.
In business, this is what used to be called win-win, and there’s no reason I can’t laud it here. It’s been my experience that what’s good for me as a teacher is often good for students as well, that when I give them more of the work I used to do for them, they learn more about the process of writing and gain a deeper understanding of the subject.
But it feels weird. It feels too easy. It feels like I’ve become the “lazy” teacher we are all warned about becoming in pedagogy classes, the ones the educational professors warn us are ruining the field.
Looking back, though, it’s the teachers who never change their approach or the ones who fail to account for the latest trends who are seen as lazy. The former I am not; I get bored easily with what I have been doing and sometimes shake up my curricula for the sake of experimentation or fun. The latter bugs the hell out of me, as if spending precious time and energy on whatever hot new data-driven or purportedly evidence-based trend comes down the line will necessarily help students learn instead of just making me even more tired. Shouldn’t we be honing the skills we’re developing, focusing in on the materials we claim to be learning? Shouldn’t we be reading and writing and discussing instead of data-gathering an incessantly assessing?
Reading and writing and discussing, letting the ideas flow and take us where they want us to go, though, doesn’t seem too much like work. When it’s going well, we’re tired at the end—the good kind of tired, my dad would say, the kind of tired that says we’ve accomplished something. But we’re not exhausted and soul sick in the same way that work tends to make us, proud to have endured but also inwardly worried that we’ve wasted a bunch of our time.
So maybe it’s not about being lazy or not being lazy.
Maybe we should be trying to create the kinds of situations in which activity—for the sake of argument, I won’t call it work—has meaning and can be pursued for its own sake. Marx may have called this returning the person to her species-being, reversing the alienation that he pinned on capitalism. Capitalism’s retort to this is that we solve the problem with “freedom” and financial reward. They are both somewhat wrong: this alienation is exacerbated by capitalized industrialization, but it was already present under feudalism. Marx was right in that human activity alongside others and for larger purposes is rewarding, but we need to see ourselves as part of a community—real or imagined, temporal or eternal—for it to be meaningful. And, yes, some type of compensation is necessary: in primary cultures, that reward is food and shelter, comfort and security, but I suspect we’re all so used to market economies that we would need to involve money now.
If we can create such situations, though, we may move more toward resolving the conditions of our original sin, even if it does not, in fact, save us from its eternal clutches.