We live in an age of total work. Consider the successful startup CEO who puts in 100 hours a week while transforming the rest of his life–sleeping, eating, meditating, working out, commuting, socializing–into a work-like means for enhancing productivity. Or the drug abusing lawyer working for a prestigious Silicon Valley law firm found dead by his ex-wife who pictured him, in his final moments, “vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness,” and yet who “had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call” and then to die. Or, not the least, our daily tragedies, all the moments when we sense that there must be more to life, something else, something greater, only to then let this something pass us by as we wait for this something unknown to arrive. Sadness falls over us as we realize that each day we betray our imaginations, closing ourselves off from what, unspeakably, has been lost and is now nearly forgotten.
Total work, a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper just after World War II, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers, the entirety of life into work. By this means, work will ultimately become total when it’s the center around which all of human life turns, when everything else is not just subordinate to but is also put in the service of work, when leisure, festivity, and play come to resemble and then to become work, and when there remains no other dimension to life beyond work. To see this, think of any given day: probably, you arrange your sleep and schedule social engagements around work; at night and in the morning you prepare for work; you commute to and from work; you eat lunch while doing work; you occupy your thoughts with what needs to be done and with how to get through things; you work out, rest and relax, eat well, and remain in good health for the sake of being more productive; you believe in working on yourself as well as on your relationships; you think of your days off in terms of getting things done; and you take a good day to be a productive day.
Plainly, despite our belief in the supreme value of work, caring as much as we do about work is causing us needless suffering. I speak daily with individuals from Silicon Valley to Scandinavia, from Central America to Southern Europe about their “obsessions with work,” obsessions that, by their own accounts, are making them miserable. Nevertheless, the prevailing assumption underlying total work is that work is worth caring a lot about in virtue of the fulfillments and rewards it supplies, so much so that it should be central to a good human life. But what if this assumption were incorrect with the result that our lives were grounded on an unsound foundation? What if the idea were not to do less work but to care less about the work we do?
We can begin to care less about work either by becoming completely indifferent to life and so not caring about anything or by developing an aversion to working, procrastination being one form of this, indulgence in pleasure another. And yet, neither approach seems to hold much promise: the first because it turns us into nihilists who believe that nothing is worth living for, the second because it leaves us stuck in a cycle of aversion for work and attraction to pleasure, an unending pattern Buddhists would regard as the manifestation of deep unsatisfactoriness (“dukkha”). Thus, the only option remaining is to care less about work because we care more about other, more important things. What, then, are those more important things?
Most of us have had meaningful experiences–finding love unexpectedly, seeing moonlight draped over rooftops, feeling awe when asked an intriguing question, catching a glimpse of eternity–that we summarily dismiss as being no more than passing moments or that we turn into merely nostalgic episodes to be recalled wistfully now and again. I wonder, though, whether these experiences aren’t instead clues revealing a vertical dimension to life and, if so, whether we could dilate into them as they arise. I call this dimension “vertical” because it lifts us out of our ordinary, workaday lives as well as our self-centered cares and concerns just as it opens us up to being immersed in what’s actually occurring, disclosing something of the vastness of existence. I can think of four such experiences, all of which can be regarded as sophisticated forms of play.
Love is playful. When we fall in love, we may experience genuine joy quite possibly for the first time in our lives. For Pieper, “Joy is the response of the lover receiving what he loves.” We long for the one we love. And not only do we long for him or her; we also learn, through love, to care more about others than we do about ourselves. What’s more, love ushers us into a state of awareness where the world seems kindlier, more forgiving, more open, and less fraught by injustice, depravity, and degradation. In love, we feel that nothing needs to be done, and love shows us what, and who, we’re capable of being.
In its purest form, art is also play, the free play of the imagination. In the act of aesthetic perception or creation, we come to embrace beauty. And what’s striking about beauty is not just that it slows down and channels our attention in the direction of the object, soliciting us to dwell in its presence but also that it attracts us, transporting us to it while lifting us out of the world of utility. Transforming the space around us into something captivating, beauty seduces us into staying there to take it all in or as much as we can. What might it mean for us to make room for more beauty in our lives and, even better, if we were to make our lives themselves more beautiful?
While, in some social circles, it’s controversial today to propose that religion should continue to matter to us in a secular age, I believe it holds within itself the truth that there is more to life than the temporal, impermanent realm of human existence. Notwithstanding their significant differences, all existing religions, whether a theistic religion like Christianity or a non-theistic religion such as Buddhism, bear like seeds glimpses of eternity. Religions are vessels of eternity. When we’re graced by an experience during which clock time falls away and we contemplate “the numinous,” we feel, being in a state of happiness beyond words, more and more at one with things. Mystical poets are not advancing philosophical propositions when they say, “I am the transparing sea and the liquid sky and the intimate hills far off and within.”
Philosophy, finally, is an activity severed from work. As the loving, reflective pursuit of living wisely, it takes us well beyond the useful and the expeditious, and in so doing it invites us to inquire into the connection between human existence and the existence of all things. Initially, it may seem that asking philosophical questions such as “Who am I?,” “What is this all about?,” “How should I live?,” and “What is love?” leads us to knowledge of ourselves and the world. Up to a point, this is true. Yet, higher up, philosophy seeks to awaken us to the very mystery of existence. Beginning in wonderment, it brings us to genuine, unalloyed awe.
Caring less about work, we open ourselves up to caring more about the vertical dimension to life, about what matters more. Love, art, religion, and philosophy shepherd us beyond the world of total work, helping us to remember why we’re here, allowing us to shed our worries, anxieties, irritations, and busynesses, affording us experiences of what is truly meaningful, letting us rest for a while in the unfolding present. In this, we are, again, like children.
Exasperated, a character in Voltaire’s Candide named Martin exclaims, “Let’s stop all this philosophizing and get down to work.” What a waste of time, he seems to be saying, and maybe you’re thinking the same thing. We could, of course, follow Martin’s advice, or we could insist upon working less without caring less about work, or we could try to find a time management guru who will continue a regime of total work by plying time-saving techniques. But then aren’t these approaches just more of the same: total work in action? Keeping your head down, easing up a bit, and using work to work more efficiently will all ensure that you’ll someday regret the awakened life that will have ultimately, tragically passed you by.