In 1905 Max Weber wrote “The Protestant Work Ethic” – a tome citing stats to convey that Protestants were superior to Catholics (and everyone else) at work and capitalism. Folk like Nietzche and Wagner also drew huge prejudices out of anecdotal self-congradulation.
But, at 60, my own compulsive work ethic has renewed bemusement for me. “To my best professional knowledge and belief” the fact that I am a Protestant had nothing to do my typical 60-70 hours a week doing things. The financial results clearly indicate I do not work in the cause of wealth. The subordination of all but our children’s agenda’s to the preoccupation of my occupations is autonomic, unquestioned and simply done as part of who I am.
Work has gotten a bad rap in the last generation or two.
The number of Americans who can work and choose not to is at a 45 year high. Of course having less work to do does mean fewer opportunities, and we are in year 9 of The Great Recession. The average work week has fewer hours than it did a decade ago.
But the countercurrent to the self-defined primacy of work as a laudable, or at least defendable life focus has had many popular culture counter currents. “Have You Ever Been Mellow” was a Top 10 1970’s hit (part of me wants it to have been the reason Olivia Newton John’s boyfriend ran away). “I Don’t Want To Work, I Just Wanna Bang on the Drum All Day” rocked the 1990’s. Smoking dope has emerged as a clear anti-work ethic lifestyle choice, gaining legal validation.
Beyond distractions, the anti-work impulse advocates the inhumanity of applied human effort. The argument is a naturalist prescription, where simply living in concert with Gaia, Mother Earth, is superior to doing more, trying harder or changing things for the better. Work robs us of connection to those who love us. Work distorts more meaningful life focii.
When my son’s high school football team lost a game that meant their post season was not going to happen, unusual in their tradition of excellence the coach had to make sense of it, despite the extreme effort the young men put out to get to a losing season. Instead of sadness, or regret, let alone recrimination, the coach said one simple, abiding fact:
“All we have left is work.”
No winning season, no league championship no playoffs, no reward for teenaged lives that had dedicated a large percentage of their time on earth to those simple, crystal clear goals.
“All we can do is get better than we are now. We can work.”
The essential truth of that is woven into my days in this Life Play. My First Act was completely out of my control, so its success was defined by survival. Finding career and the love of my life was more than enough for the Second Act. Children grow up, do not leave heart or brain, but are not helped by my control impulse after their one act as the central focus in our lives. My wife is the only Three Act player in the play with me, but again the control impulse is not a good idea. I may have a unexpected 4th Act in my Life Play, or not. I do not control the circumstances, including my abilities or impediments, fortune or bad luck.
But I can work. Whether, football, school, career, arts, building, planting, all of it was in the life flow of work. Work was the baseline, the feed tough, the plough pushed through the unfurrowed earth. It may be based on love, faith, fear or ego, but it is the medium of life for me and most, I think.
Work is not Zen, it is not mantra, it is getting stuff done and moving onto the next . Work is direction, it is movement it is way to manifest here, now in action.
Anyone can get better. There is no barrier to trying harder. Increasingly the outcomes that once drove me are revealed to be the combination of things completely out of my control, with the one thing I do control no matter what compromised circumstance or poor positioning. Work.
But getting better is harder than being mellow.
There is no justification for working 7 days a week, except its what I can do. It actually is not based on money (but that is a necessity), its just about getting things done. Like this piece, like the 4 meetings yesterday, like the concert last month.
Getting things done only happens with work.
To smell the roses you have to plant them. In a garden you make, on land you worked to own. Smelling the flowers planted by others is, to me, just watching TV with your nose. Passive enjoyment is enjoyment: but its not achievement, it is not earned, just experienced.
Pleasurable experiences are pleasureable: but they change nothing.
Whether its because I am a Protestant, had a fairly unpleasant childhood or that I am a megalomaniac, working is better than not working. In truth its all we can control, whether its enough or not.