Whenever I think of chains, as in prison chains, I remember a scene in Disney’s Robin Hood: Prince John has been arresting all the animals of the forest, and we see a few of them in their striped shirts and hats, walking along to the work camp, each with a cuff around an ankle, links joining each person, and with each step they pull a large iron ball behind them. It’s meant to make you feel miserable. Those little animals ought to be running free and making merry in the woods.
I wonder how many of us relate to the animals along the chain. We go about our work, and it does feel like a slog. Whether it’s a job we really hate, or one of the children is at a particularly trying phase of life, or all the recurring household tasks, we are burdened with the necessity and tiresomeness of the work.
According to Chapter Four of Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture (affiliate link), finding ourselves shackled to the process of work isn’t all that unusual. In fact, he considers a proletarian to be one ‘who is fettered to the process of work’, and suggests that proletarians are found across the social spectrum. But how did we become chained to work for work’s sake? And, perhaps more interestingly, how are we liberated from it?
Our chains have both external and internal causes.
Pieper gives three causes that chain people to work. The first is lack of property – of either owning a home or being in a position to save for a home. The second is a totalitarian state, that puts economic forces into place that require everyone to work. These are both external causes. Third, internally, a person might be ‘impoverished’. Pieper summarizes this person as someone whose:
Life has shrunk inwardly, and contracted, with the result that he can no longer act significantly outside his work, and perhaps can no longer conceive of such a thing. (p. 50).
Most of us probably don’t know anyone who is completely unchained from work, but a good literary example might be Lord Peter Wimsey from Dorothy Sayer’s set of mysteries (affiliate link). He owns property and has plenty of money to live on, and keep a valet to boot. He lives at a time where the political and economic forces at play haven’t required him to work in order to live. He’s also a polymath, enjoying a wide knowledge of music, food, and old books. All of this enables his other interest: solving crimes, for free, for the good of those around him. With a secure home, free time, and intellectual resources, Lord Peter is really at leisure.
How to find freedom from work for work’s sake
Most of us, though, aren’t handed ancestral homes, money to live on, a broad education, and freedom to pursue our own interests on a silver platter. This is part of what makes Lord Peter so fun to read: it’s so far removed from how we can imagine living ourselves. But if lack of property, a totalitarian state, and inner impoverishment chain us to the process of work, is there anything we can do about it?
Pieper addresses the societal problem theoretically, and I can understand why. The practical solutions will be extremely complex and certainly beyond the scope of his essay. But I think that there are ways we can find freedom from work individually.
If possible, aim for security in your house.
Not everyone has choices in where they live (that’s part of the problem that Pieper describes). For those who do, though, I think we ought to keep the principle of security close to heart. By security, I specifically mean minimizing the risk of losing your house. Is my mortgage payment affordable and is the loan over a reasonable term? Is my house likely to maintain or increase its value? Obviously, there are many unknowns, but it is wise to take steps to prevent ending up upside down on a mortgage, working past retirement age to pay off a mortgage, or stretching your budget to its limits in order to make mortgage payments.
Additionally, we can take steps to give ourselves choices later on: if you lose your job, do you have a financial safety net that will give you time to find the next one? Will you have to say yes to the first that comes along, or will you have some amount of time to find a ‘good fit’? Do you or your spouse want to stay home with any children that come along? Living off of one income now means that you won’t have such a lifestyle shock when that happens (and if you are both employed, it could mean money funneled into a safety net).
Challenge the totalitarian state
From Pieper’s perspective, the people in our community and our country as ‘persons’ rather than ‘workers’. Because of this, It’s natural to be moved to political action against efforts of the state to bind as many people as possible to the process of work. It does not take much time to email a senator, a house representative, an MP or a local councilor and advocate for those who are entrenched in the process of work. There are policies everywhere that pull people into work. Tax systems that give favor to two-income families and unemployment support that is almost too complex to navigate, especially for those with legitimate health issues – these are just two.
Even more tangibly, after reading this chapter, my husband and I found ourselves ruminating over whether we should shop (in person or online) on Sundays. Should we accept the inconvenience of waiting to make our purchases in order to make a small statement about rest? Carl and I have an immense list of DIY jobs for the house: should we lay aside our wallpaper scrapers and power drills on Sunday afternoons? Grappling with how to honor the Sabbath in our home is a key question for us right now.
Address my own inner impoverishment
I had tunnel vision in high school. Every club I joined, volunteer opportunity I undertook, piece of homework I completed was with the ultimate goal of writing an impressive resume that would lead to scholarship money for university. In some ways, this is quite ironic. In wanting to present myself as a ‘well-rounded’ individual, I really only developed an ambition for success – success that could be quantified as dollars and cents.
We can own our homes and live in a country that honors its citizens as persons, but if we can’t act significantly outside of the sphere of work, we are still in bondage to it. In Pieper’s words,
The provision of an external opportunity for leisure is not enough; it can only be fruitful if the man himself is capable of leisure (p.54).
My high school education did not prepare me to act significantly outside of a world of standardized tests, GPAs, and scholarship money. I accept some responsibility for that, but the way public education is designed and the vision of success that is promoted there are also at fault.
Now that I’m not in formal education or formal employment, I don’t have any of my former motivations for learning. There is a temptation to pursue the accomplishments of my children or the cleanliness of my house in the absence of other tangible markers of success. Or instead, I can develop intrinsic motivation: to learn for the sake of learning. To read challenging books because they stretch me as a person. To practice leisure, because the sphere of work will ultimately never satisfy my desire for significance.
Don’t begrudge the chains
As I’ve been reading this book, I’ve started to feel a bit of a risk: in coming to a proper view of rest and leisure, it’s tempting to go too far and turn my nose up at the thought of work. How do I maintain a proper view of rest while cheerfully putting on yet another load of laundry? It’s tough to do housework when you start to think you’re too good for it.
I think the answer, at least in part, lies in New Testament instructions to bondservants. Consider Colossians 3:22-24:
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
Most of us don’t have a choice about whether or not to work. Even if we are a stay at home parent, we all have work to do if we want to steward our homes and care for our families well. To some extent, we will live our lives with a connection – a chain – to work.
But instead of begrudging our chains, we are called to sincere, hearty work. Why? Because in respecting our call to work, we are serving our real Master – the one who gives our reward and our rest. This is the ultimate freedom from our bondage – we do none of our work for work’s sake: we undertake all we do for Christ’s sake. So do it well.
Work is necessary. Hearty, sincere work honors God, and we need to take care to not turn up our noses at it. But the driving theme of Leisure, the Basis of Culture is that we are more than the work we do. Therefore, we should champion leisure, for ourselves and others, privately, politically, and practically.