Upon the recent birth of our third child, I took a brief “vacation” from “work” (quotes intended). The time spent with family was special, joyous, and fulfilling, yet given the extreme lack of sleep, the sudden rush of behavioral backlash from Toddler Siblings 1 and 2, and a host of new scarcities and constraints, it was also a whole heap of work.
Needless to say, when I arrived back at the office just a week later, I felt like I was visiting a spa of sorts. Tasks and demands beckoned, but when lunchtime rolled around, I could at least eat my sandwich in peace. When I returned home later that evening, “play time” was ready and waiting, pre-packaged with a peculiar blend of laughter and stress, imagination and fatigue.
Point being: Sometimes “work” is a lot less work than “life.”
We’re all familiar with the cultural calls for “work-life balance,” prodding us to level out our “day jobs” with the deeper and broader things of “life.” But though such a notion may intend to cut through legitimate ills — idols of busyness, productivity, money, power — it’s not all that suited to the ultimate solution.
As my daily retreat to the office spa demonstrates, the workings-out of work vs. responsibility vs. leisure vs. Sabbath are not so easy to parse. God has called us to work and service across all spheres of life — at the office, in the home, on the street, in the church — and thus, the key struggles we’ll face have just as much to do with finding the right work-work balance, even amid this so-called “life.” The point may seem trivial, but the overlap of this with that implies a great deal for how we order our lives, from the bottom to the top and back again.
The dangers are perhaps most evident in the wide variety of first-world labor laws and inflated cultural expectations, promoting minimums, maximums, and mandates for everything from vacation time to overtime pay to retirement planning. Take the “40-hour work week,” a feature born of sheer, arbitrary impulse. Whether observed as a political product or a cultural construction, such a constraint assumes and precludes aplenty, limiting a host of thought and action across diverse persons with differing skills and capacities. It is, in so many ways, a preference born by privilege.
But even insofar as such a constraint is needed, for at times it will surely suit the sinner, we should be careful not to separate the heavy-lifting required of us in “life” from our more concentrated efforts at the factory or farm. For again, paid labor is often an escape from certain needs and demands. In these situations, it would seem that the boilerplate singalong of “work-life balance” would be better if played in reverse.
Take the Workaholic Bogeyman Dad of modern cinema (e.g. 1, 2, 3): neglecting his kids, skipping their birthdays, and wholly consumed with climbing the corporate ladder — his “work.” We are quick to point out his selfishness, and we readily assume it has something to do with money or power or prestige (it certainly may). But by responding to such a person with a rash refrain like “work isn’t everything!”, we risk ignoring a row of idols that may be in need of toppling.
Do we consider, for example, that it may boil down to a more basic hedonism? That, for some, slaying dragons on Wall Street comes easier and more pleasurably than changing dirty diapers? Do we consider that, for some, it may not be so much about an idol of busyness as it is about keeping busy with the wrong things, or with the right things in the wrong order, often rather unknowingly? Alas, for many, the optimal “balance” will require more work and busyness, not less. And if we’re honest about this in the beginning, the prospects for integration become much rosier.
Thus, my real challenge isn’t so much against the refrain itself, but rather, against the deeper dichotomy it represents — a divide that increasingly pervades across modern society. Our unique and God-given role within the grand web of human interaction deserves a much more imaginative framework than this.
So let us be wary of over-working, yes, but let us be just as wary of cramping the scope of our service with arbitrary divides and misaligned attitudes. This will require hard work and careful discernment, but it will also demand an economic imagination not limited by the various legalisms, expectations, and entitlements now promoted by law, culture, and the raw forces of individualism.
Let us pursue “balance,” yes, but one born first and foremost by obedience to God and submission to the profound mystery of his call over our lives.