Self-Flagellation and the Work Ethic

Even today in the 21st century, our Protestant work ethic continues to set the standard of how we define ourselves both as individuals and as a society. (Don't panic—this isn't a political post. Not entirely.) Based on the Calvinist tenet that hard work and self-sacrifice is necessary to our calling, success, self-esteem, morality, and social acceptability, the Puritans considered it to be a visible sign of the salvation of their very souls, their "rightness with God." Even atheists and non-religious people pick up the cat-of-nine-tails and flagellate themselves into a bleeding state over the sanctity of the work ethic...

"The Protestant work ethic, as every first-year sociology student knows, is what made western capitalism so (for want of a better word) great. When it comes to accumulating profit, what could be more perfect than hard work, self-denial, plus the threat of eternal damnation for the lazy? Then, when Europe got too comfortable, the Puritans left for America to work even harder and self-deny more vigorously, culminating triumphantly in the corporate culture that brought you the Furby, aerosol cheese and Crocs. These days, if you consider yourself lazy or a procrastinator – who doesn't, in some area of life? – you almost certainly share some vestige of this moralism and use it to chastise yourself. Effort is key. Even failure is acceptable, so long as you tried your hardest." Oliver Burkeman

I'm not talking about laziness. I've never been the sort of person who does a job to get it over with, I do a job to get it done correctly because I want to be proud of whatever it is I've attached my name and reputation to.

Everywhere we go we are bombarded by the specter of the work ethic looming darkly over our heads.

"Hard work spotlights the character of people:
some turn up their sleeves,
some turn up their noses,
and some don't turn up at all."

"It is a belief in the moral benefit and importance
and its inherent ability to strengthen character."

"Work hard, stay humble."

"If you work really hard and are kind, amazing things will happen."

"Jesus is coming. Look busy."

And so on.

When I was young I gladly bought into this. I took it seriously and, yes, I felt darned good about myself as I worked two and three jobs and put myself through school, all as a single parent. The concept of doing what one loves and loving what one does was foreign to us back then. We worked because it was the right thing to do. The American thing. I was happy to do my bit, and like other artists, I carved out precious moments for my creativity during my lunch hour, in the evenings after dinner was over, the dishes were washed, and the kids were in bed, and on weekends. I was young. I still had excess energy, and my whole life was ahead of me. "Plenty of time," I thought.

The ugliness of this myth appeared, however, when I could no longer work due to illness and aging. Suddenly, I found myself thrust out of the hive, abandoned by the system I supported all my adult life (I began working, illegally, at 15). Now, I am (along with too many other people in my situation)  referred to as a user, slacker, a liability, a socialist.

How dare I try to claim the SSI they unflinchingly stole from my paychecks? How dare I expect medical care after they broke my back? I may have put in 36 years, but after I'd been muscled out because I didn't "fit the profile" (too old, too fat, too ill, too gay, too whatever), I was left adrift. Invisible. Worse, the blame for the country's economic woes fall on me, the hardworking American who lived paycheck-to-paycheck, paid taxes, took care of my elderly, raised my young, and followed the rules. You will forgive me when I state my revulsion at quotes like, "Don't share my wealth, share my work ethic." Most of the 1% have never changed their father's diapers and colostomy bags, scrubbed their mother's shit off the bathroom floor on their hands and knees, or lost sleep because their autistic child had nightly screaming fits.

In 2008, after I faced the fact that I could no longer take part in the work force (largely due to wearing my body out as the family caretaker), I did my best to create work for myself. Believe me, working from home, generating jobs and income, is much harder than showing up at a cubicle every morning. My family needed me to go to work. I wanted to go to work, but after three weeks I had to give in and admit to myself and everyone else that I just couldn't do it anymore. Talk about self-flagellation!

If believing in one's dreams and abilities always brought about desired results for everyone who believes, if hard work always brought success to everyone who works hard, I wouldn't be writing this entry. There would be no hungry children and fewer homeless people.

I think I'm rounding a corner. Where I once wrote, composed, and created in the quest for recognition and recompense, I'm now coming to the place where I may have to shove all that aside and do these things simply for the doing and to leave something behind for family not yet born. Trying to create to meet a deadline, fulfill a bucket list, or to be a best selling author has become too hard for me. My health just can't manage it. This is harder on me than I can articulate; it's unspeakable, really, but I know that the self-condemnation for simply getting older has to stop. That, I believe is truly what growing old gracefully is all about.
"We don't correlate our sense of responsibility with what we are actually producing. We correlate it with how hard we are being on ourselves. The Puritans had a strong work ethic, but they also burned witches at the stake. We need new role models." Dan Pallotta