“Learn at first concentration without effort: Transform work into play; make every yoke that you have accepted easy and every burden that you carry light.” Anonymous (From Meditations on the Tarot – The Magician)
Many years ago, while performing in France, I was talking to a woman as she packed for her vacation. “How long are you going to be gone?” I asked, after she told me she was going to travel through northern Africa.
“Six weeks,” she casually replied.
“Wow, how did you orchestrate such a long vacation?”
She looked at me as if I was daft. “Everyone in France gets a six week vacation. There is more to life than work, you know.”
A couple of months ago, I decided to take a month off. While I’d had some brief vacations, I hadn’t intentionally “not worked” in almost 20 years. Since many people my age are thinking about retirement, I thought I’d try it. I went away so I wouldn’t be tempted to fall back into my routine. The first week was glorious. I slept nine hours a night, took two hours for breakfast, reading, and staring into space. I’d exercise, muse, have a leisurely lunch, go for a long walk. Before I knew it, it was evening. By the second week, I had caught up with all the different Facebook chats I’ve never had time (or interest) to follow, cleaned my email mailbox, gone through all my spam, cleaned the house I was staying in and re-arranged all their furniture, polished my toenails and watched a dozen episodes of Big Bang Theory. Around the third week, I remembered that I had wanted time to write. Was writing work? Or should it be included in my non-work? I tried to only write when I felt like it so it wouldn’t feel like work. I was unable to write anything until I remembered I had an article due for this magazine. Suddenly words flowed, stopping abruptly as soon as I sent the article off. Hmmm.
By the fourth week, I couldn’t wait to go home, plan and teach a class, work with clients, go to meetings, engage with others in a meaningful, helpful way. “OK, Lavinia, what’s that about?” I asked myself. “Well,” said my lofty, evolved, probably hypocritical self, “You just love work for work’s sake. To be in the flow, to be of service to humanity, to share your passion, oh yes, work is a beautiful thing.”
“Oh right,” said my inner psychotherapist. “You just can’t function without a structure, plus being busy with work keeps you from thinking that you said you want to write.”
“Wahhhhh!” cried my inner child. “I just need to be needed.” I was relieved that my critical parent, wild woman and overachiever were still asleep.
So why do we work? My mini-retirement was enough to show me that it provides me an anchor of meaning. A recent article in the NY Times examined retirement vs. working into old age. “In 2000, after a long career at the helm of a commercial printing firm, Arline Tarte, now 71, left the industry for good. For two years, she played bridge, went to the theater and ballet, saw jazz concerts. But she says she found it uninspiring at best. ‘I was used to doing all that and running a company that was very involved,’ she said. ‘It was boring.’ So she got her real estate license and became a broker. The way she sees it, her age is an asset. ‘With age, you gain experience and knowledge,’ she said. ‘You only get old if you act old, and I think life is an attitude.’
Why do some people love work, while others can’t wait for the end of the day, or the end of their careers?
LOCATION: Somewhere on the savannah
TIME: ca. 1,000,000 BCE
HECTOR and HORTENSE are arguing. (Translation of grunts and gestures provided by yours truly.)
What do you mean you are not going to work today?
I just can’t take it anymore. Every day, the same thing. Wake up, head to work. Sit in the bush. Chew blades of grass. Wait. Grab something for dinner if I’m lucky. It’s just not working for me anymore. Maybe I should retire.
Retire! And then what would you do? Sit around in the bush and chew blades of grass. At least now there’s some meaning to your activity. Or maybe you’d like to trade with me – my job is not boring! After you leave each morning, I have to feed the children, then go out and strip those plants of their seeds. I get back and pound and pound till they are edible. I have to clean all the leaf litter that gets scattered in front of the cave. Then I teach the kids their social skills: no clubbing the neighbors, no painting on the cave walls. I’d trade with you any day! I could totally use a day sitting in the bush, bullshitting with the guys.
We don’t just bullshit. We talk about… important stuff.
Yeah, like what?
You know, sports, politics. How to invent beer.
Well, it would be nice if you could invent beer. And I do hate talking about sports. Think I’ll stick with what I do best. Seriously, what would you rather be doing?
That’s it. I know I have a good job. I should be grateful. I just…well, how come Alfred gets to be the shaman? He’s the only one who can wear cool makeup and dance. I mean, I can dance….
He starts dancing for HORTENSE.
You know, you’ve got talent. But do you have what it takes to turn that into a career? And what would happen if you become a shaman? Who’s to say that in a couple of years you won’t be sitting around complaining about the stress of everyone expecting you to perform all the time, what a pain in the tuchus* it is to put on all that make up, how the costume hurts your back? What about the late hours? And for what? You get paid with some overcooked meat and an occasional goat? Really? Look at it this way, you are helping your family. You get to hang with your buds all day. And you can dance whenever and wherever you feel like it without ever having to worry about whether your dance is doing its job. To be honest, I’ve heard the shaman talk about how much fun it would be to spend a week just sitting in the bush, chewing on blades of grass and bagging some game to take home. In fact, I bet a million years from now, tired businessmen will pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to do what you get to do every day. It’s not the work, Hector, it’s your attitude. Life is an attitude.
HECTOR (hugs her)
That’s why I love you. You are so sensible. All right, I’m heading to the office. Who knows, maybe tonight I’ll come home with the recipe for beer!
That would be nice. A side of antelope would also not be so bad.
HECTOR exits. HORTENSE sighs and shakes her head.
Men. I fear for the future of our species. Retire. Hmmph. What a concept.
At the entrance to Auschwitz is a gate which says “Arbeit mach frei.”, Work makes you free. It’s a stunning paradox to read those words in a place that was the antithesis of joyful work, let alone freedom. Yet we’ve all experienced moments of joy, of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow. In those moments when work is meaningful, when ideas are flowing, when there is a sense of solidarity with co-workers, one can possibly experience something akin to freedom. Whether I’m writing, working with clients, or pounding seeds for dinner, can I find a way to turn work into play? If I could, maybe I wouldn’t need that six week vacation. Although a tour of Northern Africa does sound like fun.
* From dictionary.com
[ˈtokəs] and [ˈtʊkəs]