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The Importance of Being Lazy

Like it or not, according to the self-help group Workaholics Anonymous, given the raw number of hours we put into our jobs, most of us are either active workaholics or potential workaholics.  Historian Daniel Rodgers argues that we are a nation predisposed to hard work and that the “elevation of work over leisure” is an ethos that has long permeated our lives.

When you add to this inherited infatuation, if not obsession, with work, the particular problems of the last third of the twentieth century – the voracious productivity demands of our jobs, the restructuring of corporate work life, stagnant salaries, the ever-increasing cost of living – an argument can be made that we are preordained to be addicted to work.  Need, greed, and habit have made us prisoners of a system we helped to design and continue to sustain by our efforts.  We have become a nation of workaholics.

Diane Fassel, in her important book, Working Ourselves to Death, argues that the Protestant work ethics and workaholism are two separate and distinct phenomena.  The work ethic is about the role and acceptance of work in our lives.  It is about God’s calling to work, the dignity and duty of work, the value and purpose of work.  It is about personal and communal fulfillment and survival through work.  The work ethic is a about life and living.  Workaholism, on the other hand, is just the opposite.  It is a substitute for life.  It is about compulsive behavior and performance fixation.  Workaholism is about addiction.  As an addiction, work becomes a narcotic, our coping mechanism for life.  Workaholism insulates and isolates us from life.  It buffers us from ourselves and others.  Workaholism is one way of dealing with reality when other options are unavailable.

We have adopted to workaholism, says Fassel, in much the same way a frog can adapt to a pot of boiling water.  If you suddenly drop a frog into boiling water it will leap out immediately, but if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and gradually heat the water to the boiling point, it will remain in the pot until it dies.  Fassel contends that this is the perfect metaphor for the state of workaholism in our society today.

Don’t be like that frog!  Stop working!  Take a break!  Play!  Rest!  Re-create!  Re-charge!  Take a vacation!  Even if we love our jobs – find creativity, success, and pleasure in our work – we also need not to work.  No matter what we do to earn a living, we all seek the benefits of leisure, loafing, and just lying around.  It is my hope that we all can learn or perhaps relearn two fundamental truths regarding the human situation:  1) Adults need work in the same way that children need play in order to fulfill themselves as people.  2) Adults need play in the same way that children need play in order to fulfill themselves as people.

  • By Janine on 6.13.2013 at 3:42 pm

    Hi,
    I just heard you on The Afternoon Shift. I only caught the tail end so I may have misconstrued your point but how many hours did you say the average worker works in the US? It was some big number, like 50 or more. I hear these crazy numbers like in people in Silicon Valley “working” 80 hours a week and first of all, I flat out don’t believe it. And I guess we need to define “work” in this country b/c spending time in the office is so, so different from working.

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