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Work and Rest: The Rhythm of Our Lives

According to economist Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American, having the chance to spend time not doing anything in particular is less common than it used to be. In her book, Schor documents the increase of time spent working—both paid employment and work around the house—over a twenty-year period.

She estimates that between 1969 and 1987, the amount of time-per-year an average employed person spent on the job went up by 163 hours, or the equivalent of one month of work. The total amount of time spent on housework remained constant. So if we feel that our time is more squeezed, that we are spending more and more time working on our lists and less and less time on leisure activities, there is good reason for it.

It is ironic that this decline in leisure time came on the heels of revolutions in technology that were expected to provide us with more free time than any society had ever known. In the late 1950s, experts predicted that the four-day week was soon to come, and that by the early 1990s we would have “either a twenty-two hour week, a six-month work year, or a standard retirement age of thirty-eight.” That hasn't happened. Rather than using the time we save through technology for leisure activities, we use it to get more work done. Schor claims, “In the past 40 years we could have cut our work time in half, without any decline in productivity. But instead of increasing our free time, we've actually reduced it.”

So what is this national disease that causes us to work harder and harder the more time we “save”? Clearly, the issues of work and overwork, vacation and leisure time have many dimensions—economic, political, social. The fact that some people work 60 hours a week means that others do not work at all—overwork and unemployment are closely linked. Some of us work extra jobs because that's what it takes to make ends meet. Or we work overtime because that's what it takes to keep the job. Others who ostensibly have more freedom to set their own schedules just don't manage to take the vacation they have coming to them. While the overwork disease displays itself in individual cases, it is, at root, a cultural phenomenon. As the Utne Reader put it, “Our growing time crunch is too often portrayed as a personal dilemma rather than [the] social problem [it is].”

Schor and others have suggested several public policy remedies for this time crunch—shorter work weeks, more vacation time, longer maternity leaves and time off to care for sick family members. These remedies sound good, but I don't think they reflect our deep-seated attitudes toward work and rest. Until we can make sense of and begin to address these underlying attitudes, public policy changes just won't stick.

One of the primary reasons for overwork is the “work ethic” that operates in this country. This work ethic perverts the simple idea that work is good and healthy for human beings to the notion that our worth as human beings is directly linked to the quality and quantity of what we accomplish, that we are what we do. Most of us could probably articulate reasons we don't agree with that notion. But I think that it will take more attention on our part to exorcise it completely, because the idea has deep roots in our spiritual and psychological past.

Juliet Schor says that the work ethic is “mostly a Northeastern, Christian, bourgeois, middle and upper-class ethic, and also tends to be slightly more a male ideology.” In our American culture, this work ethic is concentrated where most of the power in society resides. Hence, it's no coincidence that the work ethic of people in positions of power, both in business and in government, has become the work ethic (or at least the behavior) adopted by everyone else in order to keep up and fit in.

Many Unitarian Universalists (UUs) are a part of this dominant social/power group, and their ways of thinking have had a disproportionate influence in shaping the values of society. In a way, we have held our culture hostage to exacting standards of how much we should work. The decisions that we make about work and rest are deeply personal, even spiritual, decisions. They are also the foundation of the decisions that get made in the public realm.

I want to say more about the spiritual roots of the work-ethic legacy and the implications that it has for UU theology and our sense of who we are in the world. Many UUs, as well as the Unitarian Universalist religious movement, came from a Protestant background. Our earliest religious forbears in this country were followers of the Reformation theologian, John Calvin. Calvin's theology included a doctrine known as double predestination, the notion that the ultimate fate of all souls—whether they would go to heaven or to hell had been determined by God at the beginning of time. Nothing that anyone did in his or her lifetime could alter that fate. This was not a very comforting theological position. In fact, it was so uncomfortable that it began to be perverted with the idea that God would favor the elect—those going to heaven—by giving them worldly success in this lifetime.

Naturally, everyone wanted to believe that he or she was among the elect, and so the Calvinists worked very hard in order to prove, by their successes, that they were indeed destined for heavenly glory. Calvin's original, fatalistic doctrine was turned on its head as his spiritual descendants wrestled with how to live under its judgment. There was a subtle shift from the idea that human effort had no effect on God's plan to the idea that human effort, if it produced good results, could be taken as a sign of God's plans.

Hence the connection was made, deep in our spiritual history, between a person's essential worthiness and his or her productivity. In Calvin's theology, every person's ultimate fate was open to question. Everyone was confronted with the existential dilemma: “How can I prove that I deserve to live?” When the alternatives are eternal blessedness or eternal damnation, it makes sense to spend as much time as possible accumulating proof on the side of blessedness—which, in the case of the Calvinists, meant working and succeeding.

This strict Calvinist theology has long since been discarded in UUism, first by the Universalists, and then by the Unitarians. In fact, one of the criticisms leveled against the early Universalists, who argued that a loving God would ultimately save all people, was that without the need to earn one's way into heaven, there would be no incentive for good deeds or hard work. We now affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Inherent worth means that our ultimate value comes with the simple fact of our being—it is tied to who we are, and not what we do.

Even though we have dropped the old theology , I think the insidious connection between self-worth and productivity has remained, instilled somewhere subconsciously. In the theology we UUs articulate, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. But in our subconscious theology (where Calvinism lingers), we have our doubts. “What's inherently worthy about me?” we wonder. And sometimes, “What's inherently worthy about her?” Then we're tempted to show, through tasks we accomplish, that we are indeed worthwhile human beings.

The problem is that this path doesn't do justice to either our work or to ourselves. My husband likes to say: “Your life is more than your work, and your work is more than your life.” The poet Marge Piercy describes work where people “submerge in the task...work in a row and pass the bags along... move in a common rhythm... [doing] the thing worth doing, well done.” We are a part of something much larger than ourselves that transcends our individual personal need for reassurance that we are worthwhile people. Work is worthy and good in and of itself—it's not a means to justify our existence. This is not to say we shouldn't be recognized, appreciated, and compensated for the work that we do. But the value of the work itself is not honored when we use it to convince ourselves and others that we are OK.

On the other hand, no matter how satisfying and consuming our work is, we have a being apart from that work, and we need to take the time to keep in touch with that being. There is a story about an explorer in South America who was traveling madly from one edge of the continent to the other, getting up before dawn every day and pushing his crew until sundown or later. One morning, his porters failed to appear. The explorer found them all seated under a tree, not doing anything in particular, but looking as if they were settled in for the better part of the day. When he asked for an explanation, one of the porters replied, “We have traveled far and we have traveled fast. Now we must allow time for our souls to catch up with our bodies.”

Our souls are the cores of ourselves that exist and have worth regardless of anything that we do. They do need time to reconnect with our hard-working bodies. It is when we lose track of our souls that we forget about inherent worth and begin to think that our work, our doing, can help us regain that basic sense of who we are. We need to schedule periodic times of rest and renewal, times when we can experience what it is just to be—by ourselves, with friends and family, in community. It's not easy to set aside this kind of time on a regular basis. Ritual and repetition help. Even if the deep soul connection doesn't happen on every occasion, the regular practice of spending time “just being” can remind us that we value ourselves.

UU minister Elizabeth Tarbox describes the experience of going to the ocean just to be:

I am with the broken stubble of the marsh grass that holds on through the wrecking wind and the burning flood. I am with the grains that mold themselves around everything, accepting even so unworthy a foot as mine, holding and shaping it until it feels that what I don't know ceases to embarrass me. What I do or don't do is of no moment now. Now I am here and grateful to be touched, calmed, and healed by the immense pattern of the universe. Reassured, I am called back to my life, to another day.

For me, it's usually easier to take the time for being and not doing if I'm with someone else. The person's presence reminds me that it is worthwhile to spend this time with no end product in mind. On my own, the wealth of things that I feel I need to do come spilling in, and I find it difficult to fend them off. Another challenge I face is to keep my “reconnection-with-soul” time from becoming another form of work. The temptation is great to look for results, to wonder if I'm doing it correctly, to judge my ability to sit quietly, to want to improve my skills, to worry about spending too much or too little time.

In fact, the entire Old Testament creation story provides a wonderful model for valuing both the work that we do and the rest that reminds us who we fundamentally are. On each of the first six days God works, creating amazing substances, bodies, and beings. At the end of each day, God surveys the accomplishments and pronounces them “Good.” At the end of six days, God reviews all of creation and pronounces it “Very good.” Then, on the seventh day, God rests, and blesses that day and pronounces it “Holy” because of the period of rest that it provided.

I leave you with this parting message about the value of both work and rest in our lives. All of creation, including humanity, is good. Work itself is good, very good. And rest…rest is holy.