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from Joan Hawxhurst

Work and Rest as Fundamental to Life

March 7, 2016 at 8:43 am
By Joan Hawxhurst

Friday I took the day off.  I gave myself permission not to work.  All day.

As someone whose everyday job centers on helping prepare others for their work life, I’m keenly aware of the importance of work as a central element of my life.  My work—which I love—shares the space of my life with leisure, family, spirit, community engagement, and rest. Sometimes these elements of my life overlap or reinforce one another, and other times they seem keenly disconnected.

It’s only in the last few centuries of human existence that work has been primarily a wage-labor exchange. Before we were paid to do tasks during a “shift,” our work was directly connected to filling our basic needs.  We hunted, we farmed, we built shelters and tools. We did these things when we needed to, we saw the immediate benefits of the work we did, and we were free to spend what was left of our days as we wished.

Now, for most of us, our daily work is separated from our human needs by a paycheck.  We sell our time to someone else. And often we have to think hard to make the case for how the way we spend our time at work meets our needs.

So far in this post I’ve been using the word “work” to describe what we do to meet our human needs. During my day off, I read an illuminating passage in a book called Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight, by Norman Wirzba, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown College in Kentucky. His chapter on work and the Sabbath made me pause.  To Wirzba, our “work” is our purpose, our mission, the way we create well-being in the world, and one of the primary ways we develop and express ourselves.

He defines our “career” as the wage-labor we do, the time we sell to someone else. The lucky ones among us find a natural overlap between our career and our work, so we find meaning in and are fulfilled by that for which we sell our time.  For others, their true work happens when they volunteer or raise children or organize.

Wirzba is concerned that so many people today look forward to the weekend as an escape from their careers, and that this attitude belittles or condemns their weekday work.  “This is deeply troubling,” he writes, “ for it suggests worker lives that are anxious, depressed, dispirited, complacent, or even hostile.” He suggests that, no matter what our wage-labor, we all need to understand how our weekday work matters, how we are contributing to the health and strengthening of humanity and the planet.

Wirzba also makes the point that one can’t fully enjoy rest without meaningful work. Without “work that contributes to the good of each other, genuine rest and delight become highly unlikely, if not impossible.”

My day off reinforced for me the idea that work and rest are intimately linked, both necessary components of a life well lived.  I am fortunate to have a career that allows me to work hard in meaningful service to others, and equally fortunate to delight in the time I spend outside my career. The concept of Sabbath, with or without a religious framework, recognizes the human need to work and rest, to strive and reflect.

In fact, the academic cycle offers a kind of Sabbath. As K students and faculty enter the last week of winter quarter, with final projects and exams offering ample opportunities for meaningful work, they know that spring break will offer time for rest and delight.  And of course the concept of sabbatical, allowing faculty to step away from their regular work every seven years, is grounded in this universal recognition of the human need to rest.

Faculty and students, supervisors and employees, farmers and philosophers and factory workers, we all need opportunities to give our best selves to work that matters. And then we need to stop working, making space in our lives for rest.