Purging my inner Puritan

On the first warm, sunny day of this year, I spent the afternoon lounging on the old couch that sits on the back screened porch.

 Even though it was a weekday, and thus a work day, I did no work that afternoon. I crocheted, watched the birds, enjoyed the warm breeze, admired the clouds, let random thoughts flit through my head, listened to the first frogs chirp and then took a nap. My dog snoozed in a sunny spot on the floor nearby, while my cat stretched out on my torso for her own nap.

According to conventional wisdom, I “wasted” this time because it wasn’t devoted to work that earned money. Although it contributed greatly to my happiness, brought me peace of mind and let me indulge in a creative pursuit, it left me open to criticism as lazy, self-indulgent and possessed of an inadequately developed work ethic.

To which I say, Good for me. As individuals, families, communities and a country, we’d all be a lot better off if we spent less time enslaved by that part of our American heritage known as the Puritan work ethic.

Although the reference to Puritans usually gets dropped, their hideous work ethic lives on, like the half-life of radioactive waste that is able to sicken or kill for hundreds of years.

It lives on in jobs that claim the bulk of our waking hours, leaving little left for our families, less for us as individuals and almost nothing for the community. Time is the currency of our lives, and Americans spend too much of it grinding away at work. Even worse, we feel guilty about doing anything that isn’t work.

We have stunted our capacities for joy, creativity, spontaneity and friendship. These must be nourished, and that takes time, a precious “commodity” that conventional wisdom demands must be spent laboring.  

Let’s deconstruct the Puritan work ethic:

  • · Puritans came here seeking religious freedom. This is a half-truth. The whole truth is, Puritans were narrow-minded, hypocritical religious bigots who came here seeking freedom from persecution for themselves. They didn’t hesitate to practice the very types of persecution they fled, including banishment and execution for those whose beliefs differed from theirs.
  • · Real work is hard. Our religiously fanatical forebears distrusted pleasure and suspected that anything enjoyable smacked of sin. Thus, drudgery became a virtue. 
  • · Real work never ends. Idleness was thought to be the gateway to rebellion and sin. Any time not spent working, praying or reading the Bible was not only wasteful, but dangerous.

 The Puritans were control freaks. They understood that keeping people too busy and tired to think rendered them docile, obedient and unlikely to question authority. Today, our jobs do this. Work has become our religion and the god we worship is money.

 By that standard, I’ve become a heretic. It’s my belief that nobody should have to labor more than four hours a day for basic sustenance. The rest of our time – our lives – should be devoted to making ourselves happy, nurturing our families, enjoying our friendships and improving our communities.

 What a subversive idea.

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