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11-LETTER

When our obsession with work is no longer working

In his Letter from America, BRANDON MCGINLEY reflects on a conflict between work and rest that affects almost everyone — By BRANDON MCGINLEY

‘Self-care’ sounds like a dubious concept. It’s all the rage here in the United States, with seminars and books and innumerable blog posts dedicated to encouraging people to take more time to care for their own wellbeing.

My initial reaction is that more self-regard is the last thing we need. ‘Other-care’—now, there’s an idea. A communal commitment to the corporal works of mercy would go a long way towards making our societies more humane and sustainable.

And yet I have been regularly confronted over the past several weeks by Psalm 127. The first verse is the well-known reminder that the apparent fruits of our efforts have God as their first cause: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”

The second verse is less often recalled, perhaps because it even more explicitly contradicts the spirit of our age: “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for He gives to his beloved sleep.”

Builders and watchmen: for most people these have been reduced to metaphors, so it is easy to assent intellectually to that first verse without internalising its spiritual meaning.

But the second verse speaks directly to a conflict between work and rest that plays out in nearly every household, rich or poor, white or blue collar. This conflict has always been especially potent in the United States.

To the extent that we can say that America has ever been a Christian country, Calvinism has been her creed. The ‘Protestant work ethic’ forms just as much a part of Americans’ self-understanding as the spirit of the frontier and the American Dream. It might even be more fundamental, because it is seen as the necessary condition for American prosperity, and thus American identity.

Of course the distinctly Protestant—and specifically Calvinist—nature of this spirit of work comes from the idea that worldly success is a reflection of divine favour.

But the idea of the Protestant work ethic was also supposed to strike a contrast with Catholicism, which was thought to be marked by wastefulness, imprudence, and decadence.

But what Calvinists, and historians formed in the cultures they created, miss is that Catholic cultures were not marked by sloth or apathy; rather, they instilled a different hierarchy of values than their Protestant counterparts, especially with regard to work.

As Christopher Dawson laid out in his seminal article, Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind, while Protestant cultures were an excellent host for the emergence of the calculating spirit of bourgeois capitalism, Catholic cultures remained distinctly ‘uneconomical,’ preferring to blow cash on sumptuous art rather than invest in sound enterprises.

Naturally, the more ‘economical’ nations eventually got the better of the less (That this outcome was inevitable is an example not of the moral superiority of the spirit of calculation, but of the corruption of the fall).

America is, in this regard, the Protestant culture par excellence. We should not be surprised, then, that our relationship to work continues to be so intense. Researchers have determined that, despite technological advances, more Americans work 48 or more hours a week than in the recent past and, in a historic reversal, that top income-earners work more hours than bottom income-earners.

Busyness is a social status marker. We get a thrill from telling friends that we can’t meet them for coffee because we’re tied up at work; we stay late even when it isn’t required in order to demonstrate our commitment and—here it is—our ‘work ethic.’

This all plays into the hands of employers who are happy to make arbitrary demands that bind employees’ identity more closely to the corporation than to competing loyalties like faith and family.

Faced with our perverse obsession with work, perhaps ‘self-care’ isn’t such a bad idea. But let us define it properly; in the hands of secularists, it usually takes the form of consumerism and egoism. Authentic self-care would mean making time in and around work to care both for our bodies and for our spirits—for prayer and, as Cardinal Sarah has exhorted us, silence. And it might mean, if possible, leaving a job or even a career that consistently obstructs the health of either.

Most importantly, it means tending to our own wellbeing so that we can better serve others. The ‘bread of anxious toil’ gives us no credit with the Lord. In rest, though, there is peace.

 

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