April 26, 2013 by Julia
Once, when I was twenty-one years old and in my sophomore year of interior design and architecture, we went to visit a “luxury” assisted living home for the elderly as part of a design project. We toured the place, and as we took notes on the game room, TV room, restaurant-like cafeteria, library, porch with rocking chairs, and garden, I began to envy those old folks.
They could wake up whenever they wanted, and go to sleep whenever they wanted. They could read all day in the library, or watch Law and Order reruns in the TV room, or chat with friends on the porch with a cup of tea. They could amble into the cafeteria and fill their trays with food at any time of day. No clean up afterwards, either. No cleaning required at all, for that matter.
My college life, in comparison, never seemed to let up. Art school, for those not in the know, is hard. You don’t study for tests – you work on projects until they’re good, and who the eff knows when that will be. You might get lucky and find just the right fabric or strike upon the right paint color at the precise moment you needed to, but it’s more likely that you’ll be up all night in the studio if you don’t want to embarrass yourself in the critique the next day. I was in shock at the hard labor of it all. I had to pull all-nighters just to get by.
So this luxury home for the elderly looked like a dream to me. Endless free time…what could be better? No one pressuring you, no obligations, no stress. I was ready to skip the next sixty years of my life and go straight there. I want to go to there.
As I get older I realize that desire may have revealed a slight naivety about the nature of aging. (“They have not a care in the world! Sure, their spouses may have died last year, and they are staring their own mortality in the face, but at least they get to watch TV all day!”) More to the point, I still didn’t understand how the lack of work and obligation could be a dangerous thing for the human soul. Most people, I assume, know deep down that work is required for a happy existence, but I still have to be reminded of this fact sometimes.
Don’t get me wrong – as an anxious, caring, people-pleasing kind of person I’ve always had a strong work ethic. I didn’t get the workaholic gene, or the overly ambitious or competitive gene, but I was always a conscientious student and employee, even when I worked for under minimum wage, because I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing someone or not being a good person. And to this day, if I went back into the workforce in a dead-end job that didn’t really affect the world much one way or another, I don’t think I could give myself permission to slack off.
I would be discouraged by the work, though. I would fear it. I might become blind to the value of it.
We could try to divide work into two basic categories: the kind we enjoy, and the kind we dread. The enjoyable work is goal-oriented and interesting and personally fulfilling. The dreadful work is endless, unrewarding, boring, stressful to the point of panic, painful, frustrating…there are a million ways work can be horrible. No wonder it gets such a bad rap. And of course the work that we usually enjoy can cross over into the frustrating territory at any moment – that’s the nature of work. We can’t pick and choose all the best parts while leaving the difficult stuff out of it.
I’m learning, though, that there can be value even in the less-than-inspiring work. (I don’t include abusive, dangerous or unethical work in that statement – if it’s truly bad, get out.) For instance, I imagine that working on an assembly line in a factory for nine hours a day is not fulfilling in and of itself. But just think of those workers on their break, the loosening of their tongues, the taste of their peanut butter and jelly, catching up on the latest gossip, complaining about how MUCH their job sucks. You don’t get to have that camaraderie unless you put in the time, suffer a little alongside your fellow man. And think of the fact that they have sacrificed themselves in order to bring home money to pay the bills, to provide for families, or at least support themselves the best they can in a struggling economy. There is something to be said for that. There is something better in that than in Paris Hilton’s typical day, maybe. I can’t say who’s happier, but I know I’d rather hang out with a factory worker than an entitled heiress.
If we don’t encounter the frustrations and challenges of work in our lives, what kind of narrative would there be? We need our own dramatic arcs, and often they can be found within our work. What is life without this stuff? We need contrast to the peaceful moments, we need challenges in between the rests. We even need stress to remind us that we care about the outcome of our own stories.
If we’re not working in some capacity, how can we really engage the world? How can we empathize or commiserate with friends? How can we give, and take?
It is great to sit back and observe all the wonders around us, but at some point, we need to make our own mark. We need to strengthen our muscles (metaphorical or physical) by using them. We need to do hard things to show our love for our families and friends. We need to prove to ourselves that we can accomplish something, if it means enough to us. That feeling of personal pride, regardless of what other think, is one of the best ever.
And anyway, tough work makes the break at the end of the day (or week, or…month) so much sweeter. Without the work, breaks are no longer “breaks” – they are just apathy. Free time loses its value pretty quickly if we have an abundance of it. Unlimited online surfing, movies, snacks, sleeping in? Sounds wonderful – for a week, tops. If nothing else, work is good because it makes the breaks good. All breaks, all the time? Bleh. It’s not living.
That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. Do I sound any more mature, yet?