The Seculosity of Work

David Zahl
Tuesday, November 12th 2019

True story: in 1965, Congress held a lengthy hearing to discuss the looming twenty-hour work week. According to their estimates, the rapidly expanding automation of the day mean that by the year 2000, Americans would have more free time than they’d know what to do with. Summer camps would have to stay open year-round. People would be taking so many vacation trips that our national infrastructure would need to be completely overhauled to accommodate the traffic.

Talk about an astonishing lack of insight! Technological advances have not increased downtime. Instead of condensing work, they have squeezed out rest. Dramatically so. A cartoon strip that went viral a few years ago captured the wider reality. The image shows a man and woman lying on a sunny beach, listening to the waves. The woman reads a book while the man types on his laptop. The caption reads: “I’m not a workaholic. I just work to relax.” The punchline hits too close to home for comfort. The number of arguments my wife and I have gotten into over my inability to stop working after hours or on vacation—like sneaking into the bathroom to answer an e-mail—let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

Alas, I’m not alone. Despite boasting the smallest amount of paid days off, the United States leads the developed world in untaken vacation days. We clock in some 1,788 hours a year, 120 more than our counterparts in Britain, 300 more than the French, and 400 more than the Germans.

We may think we want to “get away from it all,” we may complain about the nonstop pace of today’s economy, but these numbers tell a different story. People who for the most part have the means and opportunity to take a week or two off every year opt not to. The only conclusion a person can draw is that many of us who claim to want some R&R are either fibbing or in the grip of something stronger than ourselves.

The real question when it comes to our work habits is not so much why we work such insane hours, but why we have come to prefer it. Could it be that our careers provide us with much more than a paycheck? Welcome to what may be our single most enthralling replacement religion, the seculosity of work.

Sure, increased hours at the office could have something to do with the fact that work has become that much more enjoyable an experience, that in contrast to previous generations, drudgery has diminished. American prosperity allows more and more people to seek work according to interest and convenience, rather than necessity or parental decree. As a result, part of the attraction to overwork could be the passion and curiosity that more and more people bring to their careers.

At the very least, the office no longer represents a necessary-if-tiring diversion from the main stuff of life so much as a central element of it. Popular sitcoms like The Office, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock mimic this cultural shift of gravity by setting their shows in the workplace rather than the home, as was the common practice in the 1980s and 90s (Family Ties, Facts of Life, Roseanne). That, or the home has become the workplace, as in Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Every waking moment now contributes to the brand.

Companies like Google and Pixar have picked up on these more amenable attitudes toward work and run with them, designing their offices to resemble playgrounds, complete with ping-pong tables, fancy snacks, and state-of-the-art video games. Other companies like Netflix have introduced flex-day policies that permit employees to take as much vacation as they want—as long as they complete their work.

When we live to work rather than the other way around, the distinction between our jobs and our selves understandable disappears. In the Bible, Saint Paul often takes issue with those who depend on ‘good works’ for their righteousness. Today we’ve simply subtracted the ‘good’ part.

A Wonderful Refuge?

If you are someone fortunate enough to enjoy what you do from nine to five, you likely consider it a privilege not to be taken for granted. After all, the idea that we would find our work personally fulfilling is a radical one, historically speaking. Enjoyment, however, constitutes only a partial if not superficial answer to the question of American workaholism.

A less flattering theory for why we prefer the desk to the couch might be that, like technology, our work distracts us from deeper, less manageable realities. Raising children, for example, is a complicated, confusing process, where what you put in as a parent does not always correlate what you get out. Not so with work. As columnist Ryan Avent observes,

“the eclipsing of life’s other complications is part of the reward of [workaholism]. It is a cognitive and emotional relief to immerse oneself in something all-consuming while other difficulties float by. The complexities of intellectual puzzles are nothing to those of emotional ones. Work is a wonderful refuge.”

To phrase this theory in religious terminology, if work has traditionally been a means of appeasing judgment, today it is that and a way of fleeing from it, simultaneously. Constant grinding makes a perfect diversion from conscience or loneliness or grief or vulnerability—a way of imposing order on the chaos of relating to another person or oneself. We find security and even comfort in a head-down mentality, no matter how illusory our destination or finish line may be. In this way, addictive behavior in relation to work makes sense. Just try telling a workaholic that she needs to cut back her hours and see what happens.

And yet, the ultimate reason we work so hard has to do with a harder truth: work has always served as the great American barometer of worth and identity. Our occupation is the number one socially approved means of justifying our existence, and not just the type of occupation but our performance there. When we talk about success or failure in life, it’s assumed that we’re talking about work, which means that a job is never just a job but an identity. It is where we locate our enoughness, and as such, the spring from which our strictest pieties flow.

A friend accepted a promotion recently on the condition that she take a mandatory six-week break before beginning the new position. What I thought would be a relief turned out to be anything but. She told me she was afraid of stepping off the treadmill, worried about falling behind her peers. She could not accept the reward for which she had (theoretically) been working. The fear of coming up short, of failure—of what religious people might call condemnation—had infected her every waking moment in a way that would make a Puritan blush. I do not mean to suggest that work isn’t a part of who we are; of course it is. But when work becomes the primary arbiter of identity, purpose, worth, and community in our lives, it has ceased to function as employment and begun to function as a religion. Or at least we have made it responsible for providing the very things to which we used to look to God.

Procrastinators Unite (Tomorrow)

Perhaps you don’t have a full-time job. Or if you do, no one could accuse you of being a workaholic. If you’re compulsive about anything, it’s procrastination. Certainly you are exempt from the seculosity of work, right? Maybe, but maybe not.

In 2010, the American Psychological Association publicized a study reporting that 20 percent of Americans could qualified as ‘chronic procrastinators’—a larger percentage than those who suffer from clinical depression (about 7 percent). A separate study a few years earlier made plain what anyone who struggles with the issue knows all too well: the emotion consistently experienced at the time of procrastination, indeed the emotion that defines it as such, is guilt.

Procrastination, then, consists of more than delayed activity but of delayed activity that induces guilt. This means the 20 percent of Americans feel acute guilt over not ‘getting things done’ in a timely manner or not working efficiently enough. Would 20 percent of Americans admit to feeling acute guilt about more conventional moral failures, such as lying or cheating? Doubtful.

If these studies are to be trusted, then it would appear that productivity has surpassed goodness as our society’s highest value, our cultural righteousness linked more closely to efficiency than morality. Maybe it always has been. This makes sense. To procrastinate is to transgress the most precious of capitalist pieties. Dawdling breaks a law that has become, for all intents and purposes, holy: Thou Shalt Produce.

Some say that, despite our bootstrapping past, America has only recently swallowed the whole load when it comes to productivity. The New York Times theorized:

Procrastination as epidemic—and the constant guilt that goes with it—is peculiar to the modern era. The 21st century capitalist world, in its never-ending drive for expansion, consecrates an always-on productivity for the sake of the greater fiscal health.

Epidemic is their word, not mine, but a less hyperbolic one than it might initially seem, in light of what they identify as the real motivating factor. The paper interprets rising procrastination as a byproduct of the ‘always-on productivity’ that a consumerist society ‘consecrates,’ or makes sacred. How telling that they cannot avoid religious jargon in their diagnosis.

The Secret to Success Is….Failure?

When it comes to enoughness, productivity and performancism often work in tandem. Rarely do you find one without the other. You could say that the cult of productivity worships the god of success, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Much of productivity’s appeal derives from its quantifiability: the more you produce, the more you have, the greater your success, and so forth. In this framework, for something to be worth doing, it must first yield a measurable result. But if you want to climb the extra rung on the ladder, it must yield a measurably good result. That might lead a person to avoid those things in which they are not guaranteed success, and never to try anything new.

Not surprisingly, the difference between what constitutes a successful life and a good one often seem perilously thin.

This fixation on success occupies an expanding amount of everyday real estate. Take, for instance, failure. One of the shrewdest triumphs achieved by the cult of productivity has to be the fetishization of failure in evidence over the past decade or so. Whether it be young parents detailing their shortcomings on the internet in the name of ‘keeping it real,’ young entrepeneurs mis-appropriating Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s injunction to ‘fail better’ (while attending FailCon!), or best-selling pastors writing books about ‘failing forward,’ failure has never enjoyed as positive a profile as it does today.

Something gracious lies behind these misappropriations. Those who feel the freedom to fail tend to take bigger risks and pursue more innovative solutions to problems. I am reminded of the Christian understanding of service, where those whose position before God has been secured—their acceptance premised on the work of Christ rather than their own—are free to love their neighbors recklessly, even at a cost to themselves. People who have nothing to lose are free to give away everything.

This should not be confused with the ‘freedom to fail’ that many managers preach but that exists in name only. The Christian may never become Mother Teresa, they may prove an utter failure at good works, but their good standing with God will not be revoked. On the other hand, an employee whose efforts never produce a marketable outcome will eventually be fired—or the company will go out of business.

The careerist endorsement of failure sounds liberating until you realize that no one is actually being let off the hook for their deficiencies. We are instead annexing those shortcomings for the sake of our self-justification, tolerating and in some cases advocating for failure because of its potential fruit, namely, success. We are talking, in other words, about failure only insofar as it serves greater ultimate productivity.

The notion that failure is not failure but the first step toward its opposite may be absurd, but it is also suitably and undeniably cult-like. Ironically, such silver-lining-itis buffers us from the very suffering we are theoretically venerating. Honest failure, on the other hand, hurts. It is painful. It is out of our control. And there’s nothing we like less than that.

Obviously some failures do lead to success. Some dead-ends do herald new beginnings. This is especially true in relationships. But some do not. A biblical truism captures this dynamic: you cannot pole-vault over Good Friday to get to Easter. A death must truly be a death before there can be new life. Christ was not hanging from the cross checking his watch—‘another few hours of this and then it’s smooth sailing.’ He really suffered and really died. He experienced true separation from God. What happened thereafter was unexpected.

Which is to say, failure in the service of success is not actually failure.

The Most Powerful Woman On Wall Street

Fortunately, there exists real hope for those stuck in the seculosity of work—just not the kind you discover via more exertion. Surrender, sometimes willful though mostly not, is the most reliable route. The late, great theologian and food critic Robert Capon said it best when he wrote, “If the world could have lived its way to salvation, it would have, long ago. The fact is that it can only die its way there, lose its ways there.”

One trenchant example of what he means would be Erin Callan, who was named ‘the most powerful woman on Wall Street’ during her brief tenure as Chief Financial Officer of Lehman Brothers, a position she held from September 2007 to June 2008—an incredibly tumultuous period for the American economy. A few years later she described her relationship to work in vivid terms:

I didn’t start out with the goal of devoting all of myself to my job. It crept in over time. First I spent a half-hour on Sunday organizing my e-mail, to-do list and calendar to make Monday morning easier. Then I was working a few hours on Sunday, then all day. My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left. Inevitably, when I left my job, it devastated me. I couldn’t just move on. I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did. What I did was who I was. Without the [financial] crisis, I may never have been strong enough to step away. Perhaps I needed what felt at the time like some of the worst experiences of my life to come to a place where I could be grateful for the life I had.

Deliverance for Ms. Callan arrived under the auspices of a catastrophe, as it does for many of us. It took a major recession to do for her what she could not do for herself, to interrupt her best-laid plans and reorganize her priorities. At the risk of exaggeration, the precondition for her current well-being was the death of how she conceived of herself. ‘Surrender’ doesn’t really do the ordeal justice. ‘Relinquishment under extreme duress’ might be more accurate.

The pattern here should ring some bells. What Erin describes can only be called cruciform, an echo of the deeper rhythm of redemption we see borne out in experiences of genuine recovery, as well as other capital-R Religious frameworks, most notably in the Easter story itself. Who was Jesus, after all, if not an inefficient healer who bore the brunt of the Roman machine? Christians believe that his passivity on the cross dignifies failures of all stripes—indeed, washes their anxious souls white as snow.

The Hope of an Unfair Boss

Not all of us encounter such dramatic circumstances—or need to—just as not everyone can be classified as a workaholic or chronic procrastinator. No matter what kind of relationship we have with work, however, we still breathe the air of a culture intoxicated with productivity and success.

Into our harried and harrying world reverberate the words of that most un-American of Christ’s parables, that of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). A landowner hires men first thing in the morning to work his vineyard, comes back to the marketplace a few hours later to hire more, then again a few hours after that, and then once more, just before the end of the day.

At sundown, he pays them all the same, a full day’s wage. Those who arrived first are miffed and proceed to voice their displeasure. But the landowner stands his ground. He does not penalize anyone involved, least of all those who are clearly (and disrespectfully) hampered by an excessive devotion to what they feel their productivity has brought them. They get the same paycheck.

Christ paints a portrait of a place where reward is not a matter of output or merit but grace, where are valued according to our presence rather than our accomplishment, where all the boss seems to require of his workers is their need. This is unfair and offensive to the early risers but of deep comfort to those who get there late, the inefficient and unproductive.

The parable sketches a religion of hope: one in which love and esteem are not distributed on the basis of output, where men and women aren’t evaluated according to how well they stack up against others, but on the largeness of divine generosity. It may not boost the bottom line, but I’m told it works.

David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, editor-in-chief of the popular Mockingbird webcast, and cohost of the Mockingcast. He and his family live in Charlottesville, Virginia. The above excerpt is adapted from Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It, copyright © 2019 David Zahl admin. Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission.

Tuesday, November 12th 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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