Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Problem with Work

Americans are known for over-working. We have created a consumer society that promotes products people feel they must have to satisfy their quest for happiness, thus leading to debt. Other costs, such a health care and college tuition, prompt too many people to undertake more than one job to pay for the cars, the insurance, and everything else needed to keep up with life in the 21st century.

Compounding the problem today is the proliferation of digital technology that allows many employees to be on call all the time, anywhere. Everyone has a smartphone or similar device attached to his or her body at all times, making stress a constant and making the workplace demoralizing and demanding.

How can we slow down?  How can we find a balance between work and living so we are not burned out?

Sidney Callahan in the recent America magazine notes this problem and suggests that monastic detachment may be an answer. She cites the Rule of St. Benedict, which since the 6th century has governed life in Western monasteries and serves as the model for contemplative prayer today. It is also analogous to the practices of yoga and mindfulness that have become popular.

For the Benedictine tradition, work is valued "without overvaluing and over self-investing in achievement as the measure of identity," she writes.  In the monastery, time for work and study, recreation and hospitality, is limited and secondary to the spiritual life, the "work of God."  As a result, work is important but less important than prayer. It is impossible in such a world for status, money or power to become a goal, as it is in the lives of most people.

The key lesson from the monastic tradition is that "who I am is always more important than what I do."

What a contradiction to today's culture, where what we do (or want to do or used to do) often defines who we are and how we think.

I don't know how the goal of monastic detachment advocated by Callahan can be implemented in the workplace, though I have read that some innovative outfits like Google have developed innovative, flexible schedules where employees can take long breaks for exercise and meditation on the campus where they work.

For most people, however, finding a balance between activity and leisure, with time for creativity and the spirit to flourish while earning enough to pay the bills, is a daunting challenge. But I believe we are creative enough to find solutions before we destroy ourselves.

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