At your leisure

September 06, 2004|By Gregory D. Foster

LABOR DAY: An increasingly inconsequential national holiday, signifying little more than the end of summer and the beginning of school, on which union officials attempt to recapture their lost relevance and C-SPAN viewers endure gratuitous appearances by the U.S. secretary of labor mouthing canned platitudes about how much all of us faceless little human cogs mean to the smooth functioning of America's economic engine.

Leisure Day: An imaginary holiday, not yet declared, on which discerning individuals celebrate leisure as the essential precondition for the nourishment of mind and spirit, the betterment of human life, the attainment of earthly happiness.

Labor Day, of course, was a creation of the labor movement over a century ago to honor America's working class. Samuel Gompers, original president of the American Federation of Labor, called it a day for workers to "lay down their tools of labor ... and touch shoulders in marching phalanx." So it has always been a day designed for uncoerced busy-ness, not for reflection.

This year, though, perhaps it's time for us to pause and take stock. Ask yourself: When was the last time you questioned why you work? Or why you do the work you do? Or what difference your work makes? Or what work contributes to your life? Or what you could do with your time if you weren't working? Not lately, I bet. Like me, you're too busy working to waste time philosophizing. So we just continue to toil away - mindlessly, endlessly - and then, excuse my hyperbole, we're dead.

Why do we work? To contribute something of importance or achieve something of value? Despite our pretensions, more than likely not. It's more likely that we have to make ends meet. Or we are in blind pursuit of what William James called our "national disease": "the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success," with its "squalid cash interpretation."

Or maybe we're just filling time in accordance with Parkinson's Law: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

Most likely, though, we have just been programmed to work without asking why, because work is good and non-work is bad. Biblical injunctions aside, the words of Voltaire reflect why most of us subscribe to the so-called work ethic: "Work keeps us from three great evils - boredom, vice and need."

Two things are particularly regrettable.

First, we fail to recognize that the workaholism of which so many of us are guilty - excessive work, obsessive work - is the source of even greater evils: self-absorption, alienation, greed, stress and exhaustion, the deadening of the mind. As Rousseau observed: "It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living."

Thus, second, it is even more regrettable that we equate leisure with idleness, and idleness with the cardinal sin of slothfulness. George Bernard Shaw sought, exquisitely, to set the record straight when he said:

"Leisure, though the propertied classes give its name to their own idleness, is not idleness. It is not even a luxury; it is a necessity, and a necessity of the first importance. Some of the most valuable work done in the world has been done at leisure, and never paid for in cash or kind. Leisure may be described as free activity, labor as compulsory activity. Leisure does what it likes; labor does what it must, the compulsion being that of Nature, which in these latitudes leaves men no choice between labor and starvation."

It is leisure, and leisure alone, that provides us the time to develop our minds, to formulate ideas, to think the thoughts that are necessary to be responsible citizens and fulfilled human beings. "All intellectual improvement," said Samuel Johnson, "arises from leisure."

Leisure, then, is the end we should seek, work merely a means to its attainment. Henry David Thoreau explained why: "A broad margin of leisure is as beautiful in a man's life as in a book. Haste makes waste, no less in life than in housekeeping. Keep the time, observe the hours of the universe, not of the cars. What are threescore years and ten hurriedly and coarsely lived to moments of divine leisure in which your life is coincident with the life of the universe?"

But H. L. Mencken, with characteristic cynicism, noted our leisure-time limitations: "The idea that leisure is of value in itself is only conditionally true. ... The average man simply spends his leisure as a dog spends it. His recreations are puerile, and the time supposed to benefit him really only stupefies him."

On this Labor Day, don't glorify work. Ask yourself whether we Americans are up to the challenge put forth by Bertrand Russell: "To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization."

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University's Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington. The views expressed are his own.

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