What a bunch of whiners we’ve become. Work is destroying our life, cry the proponents of greater equilibrium, and stress has become the 24/7 routine. Woe is us, responds the oppressed labour force between frantic Facebook postings – we demand in-house corporate pedicures to alleviate our unparalleled suffering.
But maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe it’s our endless negativity about the work-life balancing act – based on a refusal to see our behaviour as an enlightened personal choice rather than a forced sacrifice of self (Added Emphasis)– that’s put the fragile Canadian psyche so pathetically out of whack.
“Don’t denigrate work,” advises Thomas Hurka, a University of Toronto philosopher and author of the forthcoming book The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters.
Work matters, Prof. Hurka says, much more than its life-loving critics care to acknowledge. “If you ask what are the things that make life worthwhile, one of them is pleasure, satisfaction, feeling good. But another one is achievement. If you have work that is challenging and calls on your abilities, and then you succeed at it, that’s worthwhile in itself. So it’s a mistake to talk about work versus your life – work is a valuable element in your life.”
The dichotomy is false to begin with: Take away too much work and you almost certainly won’t be left with enough of a life. By recognizing the pleasure and sense of accomplishment work can provide, we might already feel less conflicted.
Dominique Browning is the author of Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas and Found Happiness, and now writes a blog from her cottage in Little Compton, R.I., in which she extols the wonders of gazing at dragonflies and meditating on Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree. So you might expect this pyjama-clad former editor-in-chief of House & Garden to decry the pressures of employment.
Far from it. As much as she counsels readers to slow down and love life, she still covets the invigorating joys of the work ethic. “I’ve never really believed in a work-life imbalance. There’s not a clean break, work time and down time – many of us want to be thinking all the time, not turning it on and off. I like being busy, productive, engaged. I like feeling wanted and needed even when I’m complaining about deadlines.”
That’s the good kind of work, of course, the kind we’ll happily claim as a major part of our identity. Bad work is more problematic for the way it degrades life, and no one should have to submit to cruel bosses, unhealthy conditions or the assembly-line mindlessness critiqued by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.
Yet the people doing the loudest complaining aren’t working 14-hour days in a Victorian-age sweatshop or spending four hours a day commuting to and from a remote warehouse on inadequate public transit. Instead, we are the pampered middle and upper classes who can’t admit we’ve made this choice – for money, career ambitions, personal identity, the sheer satisfaction of the job, or just an intense longing to get out of the house.
For Ms. Browning, the idea that hard workers are losing out on life is “wrong and superficial. We’re in control for the most part and, if you’re a young lawyer in the billable-hours business, you work a long day. It’s a choice you’ve made, there are good reasons why you made that choice and, if you can’t stand it, then leave.”