(A rather lazy Shih Tzu, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, June 10, 2012)
Daily Office readings for Sunday, June 10, 2012:
Psalms 24, 29 (Morning)
Psalms 8, 84 (Evening)
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon humankind: those to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that they lack nothing of all that they desire, yet God does not enable them to enjoy these things, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous ill. A man may beget a hundred children, and live many years; but however many are the days of his years, if he does not enjoy life’s good things, or has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes into vanity and goes into darkness, and in darkness its name is covered; moreover it has not seen the sun or known anything; yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to one place?
All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage have the wise over fools? And what do the poor have who know how to conduct themselves before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire; this also is vanity and a chasing after wind. Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what human beings are, and that they are not able to dispute with those who are stronger.
The more words, the more vanity, so how is one the better? For who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which they pass like a shadow? For who can tell them what will be after them under the sun?
--Ecclesiastes 6:1-12 (NRSV)
"Why are we doing this?" It's a question many of us ask in the most productive, wage-earning years of our lives.
So many of us carry in the back of our minds what I call "The pipe dream of the American Dream." It's that notion that we will work hard to achieve and reach a certain level of wealth and comfort and then one day, we'll say "that's enough," and then we'll kick back and enjoy the fruits of our labors.
But the problem is, well...it's never enough. So many of us live our lives just a little harder at the workplace, put in a few more hours or take on another job, so we will have "enough" and get that one more thing--another car, the last kid through college, the last mortgage payment on the house...then we turn right around and want a different car, or want to save for the grandchildren's education, or want a bigger house. Meanwhile all the things we wanted from that pipe dream--mostly related to time--slip through our fingers and disintegrate. "I'll spend more time with the kids." But the kids grow up. "I'll spend more time with my parents." The parents up and die before that happens. "I'll spend more time with my spouse." The spouse leaves. "I'll spend more time doing volunteer work." But that never seems to materialize. "I'll write, or do more art, or knit/sew/do carpentry." But the half finished projects clutter the house.
A recent article in the New York Times piqued my interest. What if...(horror of horrors!)...instead of a 40 hour work week being standard, a 21 hour work week were the norm? The theory is that there would be enough work for everyone to be satisfied and more mentally healthy. The article describes an inverse relationship in the health care professions between productivity and empathy. Believe me, I get that. It is why I chose a less stressful (and less financially rewarding) practice environment over my previous one, which had the potential for high esteem, the comfort of being viewed as an "expert in the field," but also gave me very little time for myself. I look back now, and I realize I am still paying for a few things that I sacrificed at the altar of productivity. I see my young medical students incur mountains of debt, which definitely influences their specialty choice and their practice geographical choice. I fear they are having to sacrifice much more than I ever did at the altar of productivity.
Could it be true? Could we really be a rich enough nation in the U.S. that we could give up some things so everyone has more? My educated guess is "yes," but I am pretty certain it would take some tremendous attitude adjusting--including my own.
Perhaps we see a blueprint for that in our other readings.
In Acts, Peter is instructed in his trance that to do the work of God, he might well have to kill and eat some things he's been told all his life are profane or unclean. Our Gospel reading exhorts us that we ought to be "ready for anything"--not ready in that survivalist hoarder sort of way, but ready to serve God in any way we might be asked. Our Psalms remind us that this notion of our possessions, our "stuff" being ours is...well...a delusion. Really, it's all God's. We only think it's ours. Honestly, I think God humors us a lot with that delusion.
Dialing back our lives feels nonproductive. It feels lazy. It feels "wrong" in some ways. Yet, if it were wrong, why do so many of us carry those pipe dreams in the back story of the American dream?
What happens when we acknowledge the places in our life where we actually do have "enough?" How does "enough" change when the goal becomes relationships and stability for all, rather than only ourselves?