My father, a civil engineer, designs enormous conveyors which are used in rock quarries to carry stone to be crushed. The specifics of the designs are beyond my understanding as an English professor, but I understand enough to know that in a real sense my father’s conveyors are the backbone of modern society. Without them, the stone would be very hard to get to the crusher—and the crushed stone is used, among other things, for asphalt. This long view, I must admit, never got me through my various attempts to work for his companies. If I have seen one blueprint of a conveyor, I’ve seen them all; the tiny mathematical differences that are the line between success and failure are too minute for me to notice; the term troughling idler always sounded too much like an old man’s insult toward young people for me to pay attention long enough to learn what it actually means; and I think rock quarries are hot, dusty, and terminally boring—however essential they are to society.
In this sense, I am not much like my father, who gets excited by the opportunities his quarries give him to solve a problem—to create from his imagination the perfect conveyor for the empty space before him. (I was never very good at Legos, either, and I still can’t get more than a few levels into Tetris.) He has always been a hard worker—I dislike the term workaholic because no one in the history of the world has ever been addicted to workahol—and has regularly put in twelve-hour days since I can remember. This used to confound me. How on earth, I wondered, could anyone spend that much time doing anything—let alone sequester himself into that fluorescent prison that smelled like stale coffee and blueprints to devote himself to conveyors, of all things? I finally worked up the nerve to ask him one day, and his answer has stuck with me: “It doesn’t feel like work if you love it.” The moral is simple: Find your passion and throw yourself into it completely—and then thank God that some people are passionate about, say, civil engineering and not pop music.
I’ve been thinking about my father’s advice a lot lately, in part because of a recent article on The Atlantic’s website called “To Work Better, Work Less.” It’s not necessarily an original argument; it opens with a relevant Bertrand Russell quotation from 1932. But it’s an argument that many of us in America (and increasingly all over the world, as Americans continue to export our lifestyles) desperately need to hear. France is the shining example here, as it often is in think-pieces about the culture of overwork:
Although it has its share of economic problems, France has less than nine percent of its employees working “very long hours” . . . France also has one of the world’s best work-life balances. Working too much is, at best, pointless, and at worst, actively harmful. Overwork dictates our physical health, psychological health, and our time with our family.
The French, famously, adopted a mandatory 35-hour workweek in 2000, and their workers are guaranteed five weeks of vacation time. Paris nearly shuts down, it seems, in July and August, with stores and restaurants closing for les vacances. (And not just stores and restaurants. I subscribe to a podcast version of the France Culture radio program Un Autre Jour Est Possible, and true to form, it disappears for the entire month of August. Un autre mois, apparently, est aussi possible.)
I admire the French and enjoy reading articles like this one, which tempt me to a sort of self-conscious political wisdom: “Why, our government ought to enforce laws like these!” I say, stepping onto the apple crate. But I stumble. After all, I am an English professor, which means I get about three times the mandatory vacation time allotted to the French. Now, professors are not as lazy as you might imagine. Contrary to an infuriating article that made the rounds a few years ago, all but the most supremely tenured among us (and, I would wager, only the top five percent most indolent among the most supremely tenured) work much, much more than fifteen hours per week. But it is true that our hours are often more flexible than the average office worker’s, and many of us do get summers off. (All of this applies only to the tenure-track and not to the increasing numbers of so-called “contingent faculty,” who are used and abused by the higher-education industry. But this is not a post about the very real evils of my field.) For those of us at schools that encourage faculty scholarship but don’t require it, we’re not even forced to spend our summers researching and writing.
And yet I drove to my campus office nearly every weekday this summer—including July 4 and Labor Day. There are a variety of reasons for this. I worked on a few writing projects, yes, and I reorganized some syllabuses for my fall classes. But the truth is that I sat at my desk ten hours per day, five days per week because I wanted to. I like working in the summer because there are no students on campus, and very few faculty members, to bother me. And understand me—when I say “bother me,” I don’t mean “Ask me to do other work.” I mean “Ask me how my day is going, forcing me to interact with other human beings for five minutes.” The building my office is in was once a monastery, and I’d be tempted to call my attitude monkish—except that monks live in community. My attitude is rather, I suspect, strictly 21st-century American. I’m driven to get ahead, except I’m not even really trying to get ahead. It’s closer to the truth to say that I’m driven to be driven. It’s hard not to think of Dante here. The avaricious in Circle 4 of the Inferno are condemned to useless labor:
Ah, God’s avenging justice! Who could heap up suffering and pain as strange as I saw here? How can we let our guilt bring us to this?
As every wave Charybdis whirls to sea comes crashing against its counter-current wave, so these folks here must dance their roundelay.
More shades were here than anywhere above, and from both sides, to the sound of their own screams, straining their chests, they rolled enormous weights.
And when they met and clashed against each other,
they turned to push the other way, one side
screaming, “Why hoard?” the other side, “Why waste?”
If working too hard is a hell, it’s one—as writers as diverse as C.S. Lewis and Jean-Paul Sartre have declared—that we largely choose for ourselves. But let’s not be overly dramatic here. My work—teaching literature and writing about it—may not be the practical backbone of the economy, but it’s hardly the labor of Sisyphus. It has some value. Nor is my motivation, at least most of the time, that of the avaricious. As Virgil explains to Dante,
It was squandering and hoarding that have robbed them of the lovely world, and got them in this brawl:
I will not waste choice words describing it!
You see, my son, the short-lived mockery of all the wealth that is in Fortune’s keep, over which the human race is bickering:
for all the gold that is or ever was
beneath the moon won’t buy a moment’s rest
for even one among these weary souls.
Very few college professors are in it to get rich, and even fewer—even in the tenure-track—actually get rich. (Let me take another moment to again acknowledge my privilege here. I am comfortably middle-class in the United States, which means that on the global scale I am quite wealthy indeed–and unlike my “contingent” co-workers, I don’t have to stack multiple teaching jobs at multiple schools on top of each other to get there.) No, I do what I do—work that I’d like to believe has some social and even some eternal value—because I love it. Most days, I don’t belong in the fourth circle of hell, although I am certain that, as Flannery O’Connor quipped, there’s a berth in Purgatory waiting for me.
What other option is there for me? This is the crux of the problem. It’s an enormous blessing to be allowed to do something I love professionally and an even bigger one to have had some success in it. I’m complaining about winning the lottery in the eyes of some people who are reading this, people who work a job or even multiple jobs that they hate just to keep their heads above water. I recognize my position. And yet such is the sickness of the human soul that we’ll find a way to turn every blessing into a curse, and here is the curse that we’ve made of this particular blessing: When you do what you love, the way all Americans are supposed to, the way that we’re all but guaranteed from childhood that we will, the thing you love moves from being the thing you do to the thing you are, and all of the sudden it’s all-consuming. In other words, doing what you love is wonderful—but then what are you supposed to love when you’re not working? Leisure becomes work.
And if you’ll allow me, for a moment, to slide even deeper into undeserved self-pity, I’ll suggest that the situation is worse for those of us who work in arts-adjacent fields. To return to my father for a moment—it’s undeniable that work and leisure shade into each other at certain points in his life. For example, whenever a major bridge collapses, he spends hours watching the news coverage of the aftermath and angrily explaining to the anchors why they’re wrong about the reasons for the collapse. (This is apparently not an uncommon activity among engineers, God bless them.) What is that if not work and leisure coinciding? But bridge collapses are rare, thankfully, and engineers are not brought into the public eye all that often.
On the other hand, most English professors became English professors because, at some point in their early development, a book grabbed them and wouldn’t let them go. Scholarship begins with love, and one of the purposes in majoring in English is to move from loving books to writing about them. (I am tempted to write “dissecting them,” but that image is too violent. Imagine something half a step down from that.) This doesn’t destroy your ability to love books. I love to read books, and to collect books as physical objects, and to talk about books. But it has profoundly changed the way I read. It’s not that I’m no longer able to read for love—but it is probably true that I am not able to read merely for love, as I once was. And this means that when I read anything, from the pulpiest detective novel to the most intricate Modernist poem, I’m reading it on two levels at once. And what’s more, one of those levels (the one that got me through graduate school) has made itself look an awful lot like the other level. In other words, a good chunk of the fun for me in reading a book comes in the analysis of it—in writing or imagining a paper explaining its ideas, or its structure, or what-have-you. But once that happens, I’m not reading for fun anymore. I’m working.
So what would I do on my five-week French vacation? One of the major modes of leisure open to most people—reading whatever it is you’d like to read—has been closed off to me by my profession. But I can’t just switch over to music or film or television, either, because when you take on the task of cultural criticism, everything becomes a text to be analyzed. I can no more watch a movie without doing the imaginative work of explication than I can read a book, and in fact, I have to be studious in not taking notes when I watch movies. This extends to the silliest and most arcane cultural artifacts. Lately, for example, I’ve been relaxing by listening to radio dramas from the 1970s—but even this can’t escape my work-mind, and I’ve begun hatching an idea for a book about them.
It’s a sickness, and while the specifics of my case are probably different from yours, I suspect many of the people reading this can relate to them. To have a job based in a field you love is to turn what you love into a job. Combine this with a particularly Protestant tendency “to ennoble the act of working, to feel productive (even if we’re not being productive),” and you’ve got the curse that comes from all our blessings. But then, the blessings themselves come—as so many blessings do—out of a curse, one of the first curses given to human beings: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
I am not a theologian, but I can’t help but take this curse as a statement about the relationship between work and death. Since the Fall, we have to work to keep ourselves from the grave. We can no longer merely pluck our food from the trees and sleep in the open without worrying about the elements. We must learn a trade—sometimes physical, perhaps more often intellectual these days, at least in the West. But while work keeps us from the grave, it is also a reminder of it, a reminder that our days are numbered, that every moment we spent working is a moment spent expelled from the Garden.
What does it mean, then, that we are so determined to ennoble our work, to turn it from a way of keeping soul and body together into the very essence of our souls? To make a trite observation: Next time you go to a party and meet someone new, count how many seconds before the inevitable question comes up: So what do you do? The question behind the question is So what are you? But I ask it, too. The diseased world I’ve been describing is my world, and the inverted table of values is my table. I can’t think of a better icebreaker, just as I can’t imagine what I would do on a five-week vacation.
And again: I recognize my remarkable privilege to be able to have a full-time job in a society where so many people do not, and to have a job doing what I love when so many people do not have that option. I recognize the blessings that have been given to me. I just wish I knew a way to keep myself from turning them into curses. But perhaps it is part of the nature of a postlapsarian blessing to always be tinged with a bit of the curse.