Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Busy is the new works righteousness

Before you read any further, go read this long essay by Alan Jacobs first. Please?

Okay, welcome back.

Sometimes I think a blog post should just link to another post, then end there. Jacobs' essay is so worth reading, so helpful, I am tempted to do that.

But I'm inspired by this line in Jacobs' essay:
I guess what I’m asking for is pretty simple: for writers of all kinds, journalists as well as fiction writers, and artists and academics, to strive to extricate themselves from an “artificial obvious” that has been constructed for us by the dominant institutions of our culture. Simple; also probably impossible. But it’s worth trying. Few things are more worth trying.
So I'll go a little further, attempting the impossible, because it is worth it.

Here's the artificial obvious: We're all so proud to be so busy. As much as we complain, a considerable part of our identity and self-worth arises from being so busy.

Periodically, we doubt whether we ought to be so busy. Then we spend time feeling guilty about being so busy. This only lasts until we are busy again (you can only feel guilt about being busy when you have enough time to regret), or until the gap in busy-ness is sufficiently lengthy that we desire a return to the very thing that ails us.

This is our obduracy. We like being busy.

We like being busy because we enjoy our slavishness to the dominant culture, to late market capitalism and the like.

No wonder that the average Christian, when surveyed, although participating in a community that confesses justification by faith apart from the works of the law, still actually believes in salvation by works.

We prefer to save ourselves. We prefer to be busy. Busy is who we are.

Now, I like to be efficient as much as the next person. I like to get things done. I like to read stuff like this, that helps me get even more efficient. Productivity isn't a bad thing.

That being said, it is wise to doubt our work. We might get really efficient doing the wrong things. Some soldiers operating machine guns during World War I were highly efficient, mowing down thousands of enemy soldiers. They were very effective at what they did. Does this mean it was worth doing?

Hats spinning on fans
A man covered in George Washington stamps
On the other hand, many of those who appear to do little or nothing, may in fact be "spending" their time better. Two groups of people who spend their time in a way others rarely understand: monks and panhandlers.

If you think panhandling is easy, and panhandlers don't earn what they receive, then you haven't ever pan-handled. It's hard work. But even if it weren't, panhandling is also intriguing because it is a type of transaction outside the capitalist system. It is actually the regular reception of gifts. Interesting that so many of us are angered when something we give as a gift isn't used in the way we wish. Yet isn't that the nature of gift.

Monks, on the other hand, give their time to prayer. They are transacting their time not for cash but in prayer, to God. More than once, I've heard someone say, "It's such a waste, talented people spending their whole lives in prayer." I guess it matters quite a lot what you think prayer does or accomplishes. And who is to say, even if it does nothing at all, whether time spent in prayer has more or less value than time spent trading shares, or creating a product, or playing a game.

Other strangelings: Do we vacation because we rest, because we are abiding with no need to do, or do we vacation because we have to recover from all our work, or to take payment for how much we have worked.

"Take a break, you deserve it!"

The truth: Although we wake up most days assuming how we plan to shape our time is worth the time, it's not actually clear this is so. It may be, but our first step in doing the impossible, extricating ourselves from the artificial obvious, means complexifying the valuation of our time.

Last week I spent an evening at the State of Art exhibit at Crystal Bridges. Some of the most incredible art required exorbitant amounts of time. Cutting out thousands if not millions of letters from books to create new prints. Covering the human body in George Washington stamps. An efficiency consultant, asked whether this would be a good use of time, might doubt. But the artists, entangled in creativity, don't.

Who is right?

And in the meantime, might we wonder, what can post-busy-ness look like?

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