Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Value of "Hard Work"?

An editorial column in the Baltimore SUN asks the question: Why do many women feel they must justify full-time, stay-at-home parenting as "hard work"? Do doctors, lawyers, professors, et al defend their career choices by emphasizing how difficult their jobs are?


"But must the worth of our days be determined by how hard they are? Comments about long workdays, sighs about having to spend the weekend at the office, and complaints of work-related fatigue are routinely spewed with half-lament, half-pride. See how important I am because my days are so hard?"

I've often thought that the stereotypical workaholic's pride in long hours of overtime has dubious validity. Aside from legitimate instances of emergency deadlines or seasonal heavy workloads, staying at the office later than one's colleagues doesn't necessarily prove one's dedication. It could just as well be seen to prove the manager doesn't distribute the workload efficiently—or the employee isn't efficient enough to get the job done in the normally allotted hours. Robert Heinlein's story of "The Man Too Lazy to Fail," embedded in the Lazarus Long novel TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, offers food for thought on this issue.

The attitude the SUN columnist critiques, it seems to me, has roots in the remnants of the Protestant work ethic that cling to our society. The idea that work is somehow virtuous in itself, rather than a means to the goal of a fulfilled life, haunts both Protestant and non-Protestant Americans. Adherents of other religions and even atheists share the affliction. A related belief is the pervasive attitude that anything "good for you" has to be difficult. Doing a hard job doesn't count to your credit if you have fun with it. Exercise isn't expected to be fun, so we're offered all sorts of devices and techniques to make it enjoyable or at least bearable. And the experts keep increasing the amount of time we have to slog away at it in order to gain significant benefits. (I can sympathize there; the only systematic exercise I'm willing to do is stationary bike riding, because I can read at the same time.) Purveyors of parenting advice earnestly explain how to read to one's children, as if it were a chore too complicated for the layman to get right. (To me, teaching parents how to share a love of books sounds like teaching them how to train their children to breathe.) "Healthy food" (should be "healthful," but try convincing ad writers of that distinction) never tastes as good as "junk food." Reading classic novels is virtuous; watching "too much" TV is a vice. (What about people such as me who heartily enjoy both?) Most annoyingly, the word "sinful" in popular culture no longer means "bad"; it's a compliment, applied to anything luxuriously pleasurable. Dessert is a sinful indulgence. Chocolate is "decadent" or "sinfully sweet." In romance novel blurbs and applied to romance heroes, "wicked" is a compliment.

The ancient and medieval attitude toward virtue differed from our belief that the harder it is for you to be "good," the more credit you get for behaving properly. To the classical philosophers, a truly virtuous person enjoyed behaving well. Right thoughts and actions had become so ingrained in his or her character that he or she made the "good" choice naturally and joyfully. We're more apt to think, "Sure, she can do that, it's easy for her. The rest of us have to work at it."

In principle I embrace the philosophy of John Denver in the song "Thank God I'm a Country Boy": "I fiddle when I can and work when I should." In practice, though, I'm far from immune to that culturally imposed affliction. My husband and I have retired, so I'm now free to relax, right? Yet I still feel guilty if I don't fill most of each day with activities I can construe as "productive." I get particularly depressed if too much time passes without progress on some writing project or other. After all, I justified leaving my job because I could then accomplish more writing, didn't I? I partly blame my mother for these feelings. She viewed sleeping late during summer vacation as laziness and harassed me if she caught me "wasting" much time on reading that wasn't homework-related. She forbade my music-loving sisters to sing while housecleaning! Personal quirks? Residue of the Depression-era mindset? Or a byproduct of the wider culture's veneration of hard work?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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