"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Well, You’ve Wasted Another Perfectly Good Day When You Could Have Been Doing Something Useful!

Puritanism has gotten a bad name because of its work ethic, a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history according to which hard work, discipline and frugality are a result and as importantly a sign of a person's salvation. Since it is impossible to know who actually has been elected for salvation, one can only surmise; and those exhibiting these traits would be most likely to see God.

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The religious foundations underlying the work ethic gradually disappeared, but its expression gained new traction in economic America where land and employment were there for the asking. Immigrants, newly arrived from a Europe still medieval in its neo-feudalism and religious statism, found that with only hard work and enterprise anything was possible.

While Europeans debated the value of work – Chekhov’s Three Sisters featured two aristocratic officers, one of whom insisted that work was a good in and of itself, while the other credited only as a means to an end – Americans simply got on with it.  Americans had no time for reflection or consideration.  There was money to be made.

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Before long and despite Americans’ intellectual diffidence, work became a secular religion, acknowledging Calvinism and Communism, preaching both the absolute and relative value of work.
The converse of the work ethic was also true.  Any absence of productive enterprise is considered as sinful as it was in 17th century Salem. Because we have so internalized the value of work, no stocks or flogging were necessary. After three centuries of a quasi-religious belief in the higher value of productive enterprise, there is no way for any of us to enjoy la dolce vita.  We may think we would like endless hours at the Café des Deux Magots, rounds of soirees and teas, and Tuesday-Thursday afternoon liaisons, but such flanerie is impossible.

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It was impossible when we were Calvinists, when we were Enlightenment Jeffersonians, when we were industrialists or laborers during the Industrial Revolution, and certainly now in a society more complex that neither Calvin nor Jefferson could every possibly have imagined.

Is there no letting go? No loosening of the tether, no slack in the traces?

Retirees are good examples of the tenacity of the work ethic and how if anything its hold is increasing.  Only a few decades ago, workers retired with no thought other than the chaise longue, Florida, and golf.  They had put in their time, paid their Calvinist dues, and by age 65 were either on or off the list and dead tired, tuckered out like a dray horse and wanting only to drop the plow in a final furrow.

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Now, however, retirees are only ‘semi-retired’, as active as they were in their day jobs, as volunteers, teachers, care-givers, writers, speakers, and activists. 

Social and political activism is perhaps the best expression of the later-year work ethic.  It is one thing to write a self-published volume of poetry; another altogether to march with thousands of others for the climate, women’s rights, economic equality, and good governance.  The age profile of those marching in Washington is markedly older than in years past.  Not only might such demonstrations have an impact on public policy or private opinion, but they are highly visible shows of Calvinist purpose and will.

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Retired people get up earlier than ever before not because of some balky synapses in their sleep circuits but because time is too precious to waste.  If you can get by on five hours, then you have an obligation to sleep no more.  The fact that you are far closer to the end of your life than the beginning is all the more reason to be as productive as possible; to contribute as much as possible; to do the right thing as often as possible.
Fortunately for most older people this particular frenzy is finite.  One day sooner or later, they realize that if there is a Protestant God, he has already made up his mind about salvation; if there is a Catholic God, his tally sheet on good works has been complete for some time; and if there is no God, it is high time to figure out what’s what and prepare for whatever, if anything, comes next. As the Yiddish expression goes, “Too soon old, too late schmart”.

There is no way to hurry this assignment, so there is no point in trying.  Archimedes was supposed to have yelled ‘Eureka’ when he discovered the principle of density, but whether he actually did or not, such ‘Aha’ experiences are few and far between at best. 

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Most inquisitive enterprise ends up either down a dead end or on a never-ending Escher loop.

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Finally the work ethnic dissipates until it is gone altogether.  Life on a couch with a good book and a fire isn’t so bad after all; nor watching the grandkids under the sprinkler. 

The irony is that once the work ethic begins to fade, the most hardened Calvinists still need to find something productive to fill the void.  They catalog their good books and make photographic albums of their grandchildren instead of just watching them.  The work ethic is indeed a curse.

John Phillips was inoculated against the work ethic. Although he worked extremely hard it was only as a means to an end – leisure. He was efficient, disciplined, and extremely focused; and could complete the work of three in half the time.  His reputation as a hard worker and company man increased with his remarkable output; and thanks to it he ‘worked at home’ for most of the day, spent a few hours at the office for meetings, and left early.  His trail of 3am emails, 10 pm voice messages, and early morning delivery of think pieces and proposals was testimony to his almost legendary work habits.

He actually worked a bare five hours per day, played tennis and sojourned with his at-liberty girlfriend most afternoons, and collected an ever-increasing paycheck for his efforts.
Phillips had figured out what’s what long before his time.  He knew that there was no such thing as the inherent value of work nor the idea of spiritual salvation. He was not burdened with a social conscience or an overweening sense of collective responsibility.  He was honorable to a respectable degree, honest as far as it went, and willing to apologize genuinely for inadvertent offense.  He just understood from an early age that working one’s fingers to the bone or staying late at the office were seriously overrated.

Retirement for Phillips was a delight an easy elision from ‘work’ because ‘work’ was never what it seemed.  He simply skied at Gstaad and summered at St. Tropez for longer, more extended periods.  He had made his money honestly, albeit with smoke and mirrors, and, without children or wife, he would draw down on it until the day he died.

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That’s it.  One man in a thousand.  Comfortable in his own skin, at ease with others, rarely frustrated or angry, well-managed and managing. 


Yet although his tastes were European, he was completely and perfectly American.  He worked and worked hard, hustled, was enterprising and ambitious, and liked money.  He parted company only over the old means vs. ends question.  For him work was always a means to an end and never more.

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