Updated: May 12, 2020
Why have we made ‘working hard’ a virtue in our culture? It caught my attention again when I joined my wife to watch the first Oak National Academy online assembly. You can watch it yourself here. Within 30 seconds, Academy Principal, Matt Hood has congratulated the pupils nationwide who have been ‘working really hard’. It’s not the first place I’ve heard it. Pretty much every school prize giving I’ve ever attended for my children has put a big focus on ‘hard work’. It’s been part of our national conversation for as long as I can remember, and not just in education. ‘Hard working families’ have long been fetishised in our political discourse.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that effort and excellence are not important, but actually the latter and the former are not always as closely tied as we might think. We might think of it as dangerous to do anything other than affirm Thomas Eddison’s maxim that genius is ‘one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration’, but we can’t just think strive ourselves into creativity. While some effortfulness might need to follow moments of inspiration, the evidence from neurological research is that being idle is essential in creativity. (See for instance this article in Perspectives in Psychological Science.)
But even more than that, I think there might be something perniciously dehumanising about the ‘hard work’ narrative, in that it treats us all as units of production rather than human beings, whether we are in education or the workplace. And yet there is evidence that this relentlessness does not produce the productivity that is so lacking in our economy. In fact, working less, working fewer hours, making more time to attend to our being, would appear to make people more not less productive. (See this article in the Guardian from 2019.)
In the end we have to ask, ‘what is it all for?’ For whose benefit are we working so hard? I love the story of the Mexican Fisherman. It’s apocryphal of course, but like a parable, its truth is deeper than the actuality (or otherwise) of the events. It communicates the ultimate futility of striving for more. I think someone else might have said this before.
I’m posting this in the midst of the deep and far reaching restrictions we’re all living with while our country, actually the whole world, attempts to minimise the impact of the Covid-19 virus. You might think it strange that I haven’t mentioned it before now. It’s actually the very reason I am posting this now. I think many of us are caught in a real dichotomy in these days. With key workers putting their lives at risk, many others (including some of my colleagues) being furloughed and all of us feeling anxious about having a job to come back to when this is ‘over’, the temptation to overwork, to demonstrate our value, has been really significant. At the same time, the more reflective conversations I’ve been part of, have been, without exception, characterising this as a season in our lives to take the pause we’re being given as an opportunity to reconnect with God in stillness, reflection, repentance even as we notice the more toxic effects of our frenetic activity, our relentless ‘hard work’, on ourselves, our communities and our planet.
There will be moments in these days and beyond when some concentrated effort is needed, but there is also a need to be still, to be idle, to daydream, to reflect and to wonder, not just outside of work time, but within it in order that our work, our ministries might be rooted in their true source and that we might notice what it is that God might be saying and doing.