There is probably nothing more ironic and no one less suited at this moment to be preaching the gospel of doing nothing.
I have, you see, been up since 4:40 a.m. writing this sermon on loafers, loungers, slackers, and bums in America. Up this early because I have just come off the road from a week with a bus load of folks touring the South reliving our civil rights era, some of them adults who lived through those turbulent and transformative times, but most of them under 20.
I confess that I am very tired from the hours of travel, from walking around historical sites in the hot summer sun, and from trying to figure out and deal with a bunch of adolescents, most of them from big cities in the North, who spent much of the trip plugged into cell phones and iPods, half-asleep or sleeping.
Speaker after speaker, video after video, exhibit after exhibit, implored them to get involved, take up the mantle of the fallen or aging heroes that have gone before them, at the same time they seemed completely checked-out.
On top of that, there wasn’t a dirty paper plate or empty chips bag that landed in the garbage without nagging, a chair or table that was folded without explicit instructions, a community chore, in other words, done that was done without a direct invitation.
I was reminded, ultimately, that while I do believe that teens and young adults can be our most gifted and creative people and our most astute philosophers, in any kind of numbers they are not the group I have ever liked to hang around with for extended periods of time, even when I was one of them.
So while I found myself alternately admiring some of their insights and flashes of amazing talent, one slam poet from Brooklyn in particular, it was their seemingly perpetual lethargy that got to me in a big way. As they are apt to say — what’s up with that, I asked? How are they going to get done what needs to be done if they find it so hard to even move from one place to another? How are they possibly going to overcome, as the old protest song goes, if they can’t seem to ever really wake up?
Or are they really the ones that are on to something — is meaning and purpose to be found in extraordinary inertia, in minimal output, in artful laziness?
This is more or less the same question asked by author Tom Lutz, whose study of couch potatoes, goof-offs, freeloaders, and bums since the Industrial Revolution was spurred by the experience of observing his own 18-year-old son Cody, who moved from his mother’s house to take a year or two off before deciding on college.
For a decade, Lutz said, Cody had been living with him only during school breaks and in the summer, and he was looking forward to having him in the house full-time. Like his son, the author had taken a little time off early in his life to chase a few dreams: wandering around America and abroad, working only whenever it was necessary, as it presented itself, as a carpenter, line cook, factory hand, day laborer, odd jobber, farmhand, bartender, and musician. He eventually fancied himself, and then carved out a life as, a writer and teacher, feeling now that those years of itinerancy and spotty employment gave him something he would not have had if he had gone straight through college and graduate school.
So he was, he writes, pleased that his own son, instead of just following the crowd straight into higher education, was taking the more adventurous — and open-ended path. Anyone can float along in the tide, his own father had said, even a dead dog can do that.
The difference between this father and his son — and statistically my generation and our young adult children — is that while we moved out and hit the road in larger numbers, they stay put or move back in and veg out. As Lutz recalls, the first couple of days after Cody came to stay with him, when he came up from his study for a cup of coffee and saw his son lying on the couch watching TV, he didn’t think much of it. He had only just arrived after all, and there was plenty of time to look for that musician’s job he had said he wanted to get.
It was when it was days later and this same son was lying on the same plush purple sofa that his father began to wonder and then fret about whether this child of his had become a slacker. And was shocked at how angry that made him as days turned to weeks and the young man on the sofa became what he feared might be a permanent fixture.
What about this scene made this father so angry? After all, he was born and lived out his youth in an era of rebellion against what we have come to call the Protestant work ethic. Why has the slacker, the goof-off, the tramp, the bum inspired so much anger throughout history? Or is it because they really do have something to teach us about our relationship to work and an alternative spirituality — a way to be more whole?
Ministers preach, I am convinced, about what we need to learn ourselves, and my disclaimer is that I nearly always err on the side of an exhaustive, exhausting work ethic, born perhaps out of my father’s missive that we need to give back for what we have been given, and my own sense that what really matters is to live out my gifts as fully as possible.
One of my favorite readings in our UU hymnal is by Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Workers movement, when she talks about how no one has the right to sit down and feel hopeless because there is too much work to do.
There is always, from my perspective, too much work to do.
I am married to a man who I see as being much more balanced on the work or loaf continuum, but even he, when asked, has said that what he really wants is never to be bored, which means a lot of activity, whether it’s picking up litter or swimming laps.
I am periodically capable of slacking, which means slowing down. In fact, a very dear friend of mine when I lived on the West Coast and I intentionally arranged slacking dates: when we poked around consignment stores, sat around coffee houses, visited flea markets. But slacking as a semi-permanent or permanent way of being seems unimaginable to me, something I might consider as an octogenarian.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the slacker as an identity, as a kind of person, did not exist, we are told. Not because idleness was unheard of, but because work was not so revered. In ancient Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern civilization work was in fact mostly considered a curse, given dignity only to extent that it elevated the mind. Labor had no value in itself and was not considered among the virtues.
In his book, Tom Lutz points out that as a matter of interest in the story of Genesis, labor is not glorified; rather it is the punishment for Adam’s defiance. If he had behaved, he could have remained in a state of perpetual leisure, while God did all the working and the worrying.
Work, in classical culture, was the curse of mortals in a fallen world, the province of slaves, or punishment for disobedience or debt. Not especially noble or praiseworthy.
Lutz notes in his book that while there are a few proverbs in Hebrew scripture against sloth and sluggardliness, there too labor is mostly, in his words, a blight and a bother.
Work is never an occasion for establishing self worth or self love, or satisfying in itself.
The Protestant Reformation and its insistence on the notion of the calling, the basic life task, a chosen field of endeavor ordained by God was where the elevation, the nobility of work came in. And since in Calvinistic theology we were all pre-ordained by God to salvation or eternal damnation, the strength, the vehemence, the evidence and success of our work might be some evidence of whether we were among the chosen — or not.
Our Unitarian forbearers might not have bought into pre-destination — in fact, that was a more distinguishing characteristic of their faith than the arguments over the trinity — but they still believed that we worked out our own salvation — work being the key word. Industriousness, a strong work ethic, moral fortitude, were key to whether or not they/we were in God’s good graces — or not. Our famous men, folks like Emerson and Benjamin Franklin — author of early to bed and early to rise keeps a man healthy, wealthy, and wise, and time is money — if anything, err on the side of venerating the discipline of good and constant industriousness in the spirit of what he called moral perfection.
For Franklin, work is good not so much because it is a calling, or because it provides necessities and luxuries, but because it is the prime means toward the goal of life itself. In fact, in his moral universe, nothing but work is worth doing.
Thoreau, only marginally a Unitarian, hanging out around the edges of the Transcendentalist movement, challenged this root theology by his life of solitude at Walden Pond and his writings about the holy practices of just being in nature: drawing birds, noticing the changes of landscape and seasons, finding the holy in the everyday. Throw off your yokes, Thoreau counseled, and work only the bare minimum necessary.
To which Emerson responded when giving Thoreau’s eulogy that he could not help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.
As Tom Lutz tells us, Benjamin Franklin may have been a great cheerleader for work, but one thing he would never have said is that work causes joy. And as a matter of fact, he was able to retire at 47, doing much ceremonial work and a lot of playing in Europe for the rest of his life. The concept of following our bliss in our work life that has spawned so many self-help books, like What Color is Your Parachute?, would have been alien territory to him.
My mother was, during her working years, a specialist in recreation and leisure planning, a field that began to take shape in the 1960s when it seemed like we were going to get off the industrial revolution and Protestant reformation wheel of working until we died. Projections were that we would gain many more hours and years of time when we could relax and find other ways of being in the world.
What the academic play theorists assumed was that the long argued for dream of a three to four hour wage earning workday or three to four day work week would become a reality. Instead, in reality, the workday and workweek began to creep up, increasing by 305 more hours a year in 1987 than 1969. By the end of the 1980s, paid leave was shrinking with American workers having three and a half fewer paid days off per year than their European counterparts.
This has been partly due to the shrinkage of hourly rates of pay relative to the cost of living and partly because of the reduction of blue collar line labor jobs and the increase in white collar or professional jobs which assumed that employees put in more work in the pursuit of success and profit.
Throughout the history of work in Western civilization — and now in a global economy — the loafers, beats, hippies, and yes, slackers among us have been around reminding us that working is not the only reality. That for some it is rewarding and life-transforming and for some it is enslavement and drudgery. That it has been in the interest always of the larger economic system for us to lose sight of the perspective that for most of our human history, we worked to live and did not live to work.
Whether we are comfortable with it or not, our children hold that mirror up for us. My own youngest child nearly always spends his first weeks home from a college semester in perpetual slackerhood — sleeping until three in the afternoon, watching endless movies or Comedy Central, staying up all night. Just when I am finding it maddening, he seems to suddenly wake up, shake himself off, and get back into what looks, from my more conventional perspective, like a more productive lifestyle. He gets some kind of job, he gets on some kind of a schedule, he joins in the business of the world. And yet I also sense that something is lost.
Tom Lutz’s own son Cody also quickly got off the couch and into the world of Hollywood, where he found himself working 14 hour days. His dad, once he completed his book on doing nothing, decided to do just that for a while. He chose to stop and rest, to get off the treadmill, to face, as he writes, the slow, beautiful emptiness and say — yes this too is good.
And as obvious as this might seem, perhaps what the central lesson of most enduring religious traditions and spiritual paths teaches us is this — that is in the balance where we most freely and fully live.
As UU minister Kathleen McTigue has written:
May the light around us guide our footsteps and hold us fast to the best and most righteous we seek.
May the darkness around us nurture our dreams and give us rest so that we may give ourselves to the work of our world.
Let us seek to remember the wholeness of our lives, the weaving of light and shadow in this great and astonishing dance in which we move.