Another Week Ends

1. These two thuderbolts struck at the same time. First, from Judith Shulevitz, the author […]

Ethan Richardson / 10.11.19

1. These two thuderbolts struck at the same time. First, from Judith Shulevitz, the author of The Sabbath World and writer at the Atlantic, comes “Why Don’t I See You Anymore?” a treatise on the ever-expanding workweek, and its stupefying impact on our family and social ties. Shulevitz, who you might guess from the book she wrote, holds the weekend sacrosanct, but has found both in her personal and professional circles, the increasing demands for availability, especially in gig industries that emphasize flex schedules and on-command responses. 

The inability to plan even a week into the future exacts a heavy toll. For her recent book, On the Clock, the journalist Emily Guendelsberger took jobs at an Amazon warehouse, a call center, and a McDonald’s…One Amazon co-worker told Guendelsberger that she barely saw her husband anymore. He worked the night shift as a school custodian and came home to sleep an hour before she woke up to go to work. “We have Sunday if I’m not working mandatory overtime, and occasionally we have Monday morning—if I don’t have to work Monday morning—to see each other, and that’s pretty much it,” she said.

…When so many people have long or unreliable work hours, or worse, long and unreliable work hours, the effects ripple far and wide. Families pay the steepest price. Erratic hours can push parents—usually mothers—out of the labor force. A body of research suggests that children whose parents work odd or long hours are more likely to evince behavioral or cognitive problems, or be obese. Even parents who can afford nannies or extended day care are hard-pressed to provide thoughtful attention to their kids when work keeps them at their desks well past the dinner hour.

Of course, what this leads to is the “Slackification” of the American home, optimized and charted for superior efficiency, but with zero “slack time” to speak of. The constant gauging of outside responsibilities means that availability is hard to provide, which is sadly what “family time,” and frankly, love, is dependent upon. 

Jonathan Malesic agrees, in his piece at Plough, “The Noonday Demon.” Malesic talks about his career as a “knowledge worker” (he has been a teacher and is currently a writer), and what the culture of “Total Work” (a term coined by 1940s philosopher Josef Pieper) has done to his peace of mind. 

“Knowledge workers” are just as susceptible to the reductive power of Total Work, not only because most office work demands far less spontaneous thought than you’d expect, given the educational credentials it requires, but also because it demands constant availability. The two of these factors together lead knowledge workers to identify strongly with their jobs. They’re proud of their credentials or their prestigious employer or their esoteric title. And as a result, they work all the time. When I was a college professor, I was a college professor.

Instead of living my life in those off-work hours, days, and weeks, I was killing time, waiting, but for what? I never knew. I was possessed by an idleness, as Pieper describes, that “so far from being synonymous with leisure, is more nearly the inner prerequisite which renders leisure impossible” (46).

Sound familiar? Yeesh. Malesic says this paralysis is what the Desert Fathers and Mothers called “acedia,” or the “Noonday Demon,” the sickness that comes between 10 AM and 2 PM, when the hope of the morning is drained, and the promise of sleep is far off, and the temptation to escape the present moment sets in. Acedia provides the opportunity to live outside the drudgery, and now it’s available at work, in bed, on your walk, on the toilet. As he puts it, 

Acedia gets you to wish your life away in anticipation of something that will validate your worth as a person. If you feel lonely and anxious in your work now, then maybe you’ll feel better at that meeting tomorrow, or when you get a new project next week, or after you get a new job altogether, “an easier, more convenient craft.” Of course, the deadlines arrive and pass, or you begin the new job and ease into its crevices, and you’re just as anxious and alone. Soon you’re thinking about the next project. You’re on LinkedIn again. The sun is perfectly still.

We have been thinking about this around Mockingbird HQ quite a bit lately, as the Future Issue is in full gear. So much of our present-tense lives are really future lives, various manifestations of the same acedia, attempts to evade acceptance of what God gives us, namely his grace. Malesic continues, 

The problem, as Pieper saw it, is restless anxiety over our lives’ worth: the idleness of acedia “means that a man renounces the claim implicit in his human dignity” (43). He continues, “the contrary of acedia is not the spirit of work in the sense of the work of every day, or earning one’s living; it is man’s happy and cheerful affirmation of his own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God” (45).

2. Part two of what we saw last week, Judge Tammy Kemp reflects on the hug heard round the world.  

3. One of our cultural journalism faves, Nellie Bowles, hits the vein again with this story about Nir Eyal’s new book, Indistractable. If, like me, you’ve never heard of Nir Eyal, he is the guy who “wrote the industry manual for hooking people on technology.” His first book is actually titled Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. But in an age when even Silicon Valley employees are limiting their children’s screen time, the tides have shifted on him, and “tech addiction” is a new term that has indicted Eyal. It’s no surprise, then, that Eyal’s new book shifts the blame back to the user and not to the device. And while I’d usually be quick to discount this convenient reasoning, he does have a point about human nature that bears repeating here. Eyal, who used to be obese, could never lose weight with any of the crash diets his friends recommended. 

He lost weight only when he thought about why he was eating, he said. That’s why the solution he proposes in “Indistractable” is slow. It involves self-reflection. He argues that many times we look at phones because we are anxious and bad at being alone — and that’s not the phone’s fault.

The phone-hooked need to figure out why they are so uncomfortable waiting in line without their screen and what they fear around them, he wrote. They need to keep a tight calendar so they know exactly what they’re missing out on.

Nellie Bowles comments that it’s “hard and sort of annoying advice.” I agree. But it is true that the technology is not the problem so much as the needy human pouring his/her needs into it. 

4. Speaking of technology and the future, this one is worth reading in its entirety, from our pal Father Freeman. Freeman notes a line from one of Tolkien’s letters where he describes history—in the Christian framework—as a “long defeat,” with small glimpses of “final victory.” Freeman notes that this is the most “anti-modern” sentiment you could possibly think of. 

The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.” 

But Tolkien notes that within the long defeat, there are “glimpses of final victory.” I would go further and say that the final victory already “tabernacles” among us. It hovers within and over our world, shaping it and forming it, even within its defeat. For the nature of our salvation is a Defeat. Therefore the defeat within the world itself is not a tragic deviation from the end, but an End that was always foreseen and present within the Cross itself. And the Cross itself was present “from before the foundation of the world.”

5. So good.

And if this is for you, thank the McSweeneys: “Professor Minerva McGonagall’s Letter to the Tenure Committee.”

Just last night, after grading 45 feet of essays on the Inanimatus Conjurus Spell, transfiguring my corporeal form to spy for the Order of the Phoenix, and disciplining several students and a poltergeist roaming the forbidden corridors (they never wander down the regular corridors—only the forbidden ones), I managed to navigate the constantly shifting stairs back to Gryffindor Tower (where, again, I live with dozens of teenagers) only to find that the Fat Lady inside the painting guarding the entrance was too annoyed with my late return to allow me in. These working conditions are — to put it lightly — unreasonable. The institutional politics are equally absurd, yet somehow I have maintained a sense of collegiality with co-workers who initiate high inquisitions to purge the non-pure-blooded faculty (including me) and who open the first day of the semester by telling their classes that they have psychically predicted the impending death of a very well-liked student sitting in the room. I hope that the Committee will recognize my tenaciously silent suffering in this regard and in many others.

6. Finally, to send you off right, another one to the heart from Chad Bird, over at 1517. Maybe you’re the boy named Sue, but if so, there’s good news. Chad talks about how none of Jesus’ parables name their characters…except one. 

The only person Jesus names in all his parables is the lowest, loneliest, most helpless and pitiful character in them all. Only on him does Jesus bestow this honor.

But it’s an honor no one else would have given him. He’s a homeless, penniless beggar. He’s “laid at a rich man’s gate,” which means he can’t walk. His skin oozes with sores. His only companions are local street dogs. They encircle him to lick his rashes. Without money, without shelter, without food, without a scrap of dignity. Yet this man was not without one thing. He had a name. Jesus called him Lazarus.