Holy days and ‘total work’

Justine Toh on how the Easter story challenges our culture of 'total work'.

It's been such a busy start to the year that the prospect of four days off over the Easter long weekend almost feels more heaven sent than the Son of God. For a Christian like myself, such an admission can't help but feel a little sacrilegious. But I suspect I'm not alone in dying for a break from work this Easter. There's something seriously out of whack about our relationship to work.

German philosopher Josef Pieper went so far as to claim that ours is a culture of 'total work' that emphasises productivity and efficiency to the exclusion of all else.

In such a world, rest isn't valued in and of itself but primarily regarded as an opportunity to recharge for work. No wonder, then, that many of us view the Easter weekend on such terms-rather than, say, a chance to rest and reflect on the event and what relevance it might have for us.

'Total work' thinking is evident in Tony Schwartz's The Energy Project, an initiative helping people to work more by doing less. Writing in The New York Times, Schwartz claims that “strategic renewal-including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations-boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”

Yes, please? But before you sign up, think on 'strategic renewal'. It's a great idea but one that tends to reaffirm the culture of 'total work' since it justifies rest on the basis that it enables more and better work overall.

What we need instead is rest for its own sake, one that is entirely separate from work. Pieper would call such rest 'leisure', and say that leisure is all the more necessary in a time that suffers from its absence.

That we lack this leisure seems strange, for we have whole industries dedicated to our entertainment, wellness, and recreation. But all these seem to associate leisure with 'doing' whereas for Pieper, leisure is non-activity, a posture of stillness and silence that enables deep contemplation of the world.

Our achievement-oriented culture would regard such leisure as little more than slacking off but for Pieper, leisure is what helps us remain fully human in a time where we are encouraged to draw our value and worth from the world of work.

Leisure secures for us, he writes, “the ability to look beyond the limits of our social and functional station, to contemplate and celebrate the world as such, to become and be that person who is essentially oriented toward the whole of reality.”

This description of leisure is a far cry from taking a break or getting refreshed for the working week. True leisure may lift a person out of their everyday life but it is no escape from the world. Rather, the leisure of which Pieper speaks is of the 'mindful' variety. In offering us a vantage point from which to see more deeply into the whole of our lives, Pieper's leisure leaves us in a better position to assess our relationships, the appropriate place of work, and our self-understanding.

So far, so good until Pieper provocatively suggests that leisure, in its affirmation and celebration of the world, is deeply connected to religious worship: “the highest conceivable form of approving the world as such is found in the worship of God, in the praise of the Creator.”

Even if you can't quite agree with Pieper on that account, his point is that without a transcendent dimension to our experience, we are left in that 'total work' world where we live and die by our achievements. In such a world, there is neither real rest nor leisure because we could always do more to improve our lot.

That is a grim prospect, but Easter gives us reason to hope it might be otherwise. For its story features a dying and rising god who wins for us a spiritual rest that eludes all our human efforts. One provocation of this story is its suggestion that true rest, and true leisure, can only come from outside of ourselves. Such rest is, in the end, all about grace because it can't be earned, only received.

Whether you believe the Easter story or not, in a world of 'total work' the tale is otherworldly enough to disturb our notions of work and rest. Perhaps this Easter could be infinitely more than simply a break from work. May your long weekend be filled with plenty of opportunities to look beyond the horizon of this world of work to catch glimpses of the kind of rest that really revives.

Justine Toh is the Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity

This article originally appeared at Online Opinion