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Life is Short: Play Ball!
A businesswoman is sitting on the beach when she sees a fisherman approach the shore. Impressed by his fish, she asks:
“How long did it take you to bring in that catch?
Just a short while.
So why don’t you stay out longer?
Because this is all I need!
Then what do you do with all your free time?”
The fisherman replies: “I sleep late, catch a few fish, have a nice dinner, and relax with my family.”
The businesswoman explains that she has an MBA and can help grow his business. “You could buy a bigger boat, then use the proceeds to open up your own shop.”
Then you could move to the city to open a distribution center.
You could expand your business internationally, and take your company public.
Then when the time is right, you can sell your shares and become rich!
And then what?
Then you can retire, sleep late, catch a few fish, have a nice dinner, and then relax with your family.”
I’m guessing everyone has a version of this story. “If I can get good enough grades in high school, then I’ll get into the best college. If I can get the best internship, then I’ll get hired by the most prestigious firm. Or if I work long hours and impress my boss, I’ll get a promotion, etc.”
While this story could be considered a critique of being a workaholic, research suggests that this story depicts a new religious phenomenon sweeping the US known as workism. While I’m sure none of us consciously signed up to be a part of this growing religious denomination; I would argue that most of us here tonight are card-carrying members without even knowing it.
As historian Derek Thomspons explains in an article entitled “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable” published in 2019 in the Atlantic:
“The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.
What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
Simply put, workism is the belief that our jobs can provide everything we need in life– from community and meaning, to self-actualization and self-worth; thereby replacing what people used to find in organized religion, civic society, neighborhood associations, and even bowling leagues.
For example, what is the first question you usually ask someone you meet on campus, or at a party? “What’s your major,” or “what do you do?”
On one hand, it's a benign question. If you know what I study, or where I work, perhaps you’ll know how I spend my time, or what I value? But herein lies the problem. Our work has become shorthand for who we are!
While there is nothing wrong with work being a source of meaning in our lives, the problem is when it becomes the source of meaning. We’ve fallen prey to the idea that our professional selves and our personal selves are one in the same. As Mark Twain once famously said: “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Yet, as Thompson argues, “our desks were never meant to be our altars. The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office,” (ibid).
Interestingly in a country that is polarized on almost every single issue, workism is perhaps the last truly universal value that still unites both the right and the left. Yet, the problem with putting all of our eggs in our “work basket,” is that we are careening towards an unprecedented amount of physical and mental exhaustion.
In a new book entitled: “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic,” researcher Jennifer Wallace notes that 70% of students believe they are more valued and more appreciated by their parents when they do well at school.
Therefore, she argues:
“When we talk about pressure, perfectionism, anxiety, depression, and loneliness… it primarily comes from feeling that our worth is contingent on our achievements.”
Research published this summer at Baylor University confirms that our unwavering commitment to “achievement culture” directly correlates with our nation’s rising rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
Furthermore, workism is getting in the way of the joy we used to derive from our friendships and relationships.
As knowledge workers, we are like sharks swimming with one eye open, always waiting for our next assignment, notification, task, or project to ping us at all hours of the day.
As the popular psychologist Ester Perel notes, “We give our best time, attention and care to our work and bring the leftovers home for dinner. In a way, our work – as well as our devices - have become our new mistress.” Thus, proving once again, that workism is slowly, but surely, fraying the fabric of our society from the inside out.
Third, and perhaps most ironically, the harder we work, the more work there is to do. Take for example, Oliver Burkeman, who wrote a weekly advice column on productivity for 14 years. Recently, in his book entitled “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” he declared:
“Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed…. The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control– when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists [are over]; when you’re meeting all of your obligations at work [and at home]; When nobody is angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball.”
Thus, the more we try to master time, the more time masters us. However, research shows that the solution to this productivity trap is something psychologists call the “Paradox of Limitation.”
Meaning, the more we face up to our own limitations, and the more we confront the finite nature of time here on earth, the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes. (Burkeman 32)
This limit embracing attitude means organizing our days with the understanding that we will never have enough time to do everything we want to do– or that others want from us, so at the very least, we should stop beating ourselves up for feeling like a failure.
As Burkeman reminds us, the average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, and insultingly short. Assuming we live approximately 80 years, each of us has a TOTAL of 4,000 weeks on this big, blue spinning rock we call earth. (Burkeman 3)
As Steve Jobs’ once famously said in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University:
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Thankfully, Yom Kippur serves as our once, yearly death rehearsal, in which all of our rituals are meant to heighten our awareness of the paradox of limitation.
For example, on Yom Kippur we wear white to remind us of a kittel, the white shroud that traditional Jews are typically buried in. We avoid wearing leather shoes because leather is a luxury that protects us from feeling the frailty of our flesh and bones. We abstain from eating and drinking and all bodily pleasures. We mimic death so that we can remind ourselves what we are truly living for.
As Rabbi Bunim once taught, every human being should carry 2 pieces of paper in our pockets. One says:
“Bishvili nivra ha-olam: The world was created for me.”
Notice, it doesn’t say: “The world was created for me to WORK.” We have the right to be content and happy in the here and now. Not 10 years from now, or after one more promotion, car payment or the corner office.
The second piece of paper should read:
“V’anokhi afar v’efer: I am but dust and ashes.”
While this proverb is often misinterpreted as being about humility, it’s actually a poetic way to remind us that our time here on earth is fleeting. Just as humans (adam) are taken from the earth (adamah), so too shall we return to the earth as dust and ashes.
In other words, Rabbi Bunim is ostensibly asking us: What if we found out we only had a few months, a week, or a year left to live? How would we spend our time? What amends would we rush to make? What words would we need to say? What priorities would we want to re-center in our life?
Ultimately, Yom Kippur is here to remind us that rather than trying to use our time wisely, we need to start letting time use us. We often forget that the world is bursting with wonder, and the point of all our frenetic “doing” is to experience more of that wonder.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once taught:
As civilization advances, our sense of wonder [continues] declines….[Yet] Mankind will not perish for want of information; but rather, for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.
So as we turn to the last 24 hours of these yamim noraim, these days of awe and wonder, we have a very important decision to make. Will we continue to worship on the altar of workism?Or will we use our finite time here on earth to stop planning for the future and start living for today?