Monday, January 04, 2016

The Sin of Boredom And The Working World

The ancient greek term acedia is equivalent to our word, "bored." A person who nurtures acedia lives in restless slackness, with a lack of energetic desire, and a bitter attitude toward life. Such a person is often described as "bored," and they view their plight as unavoidable. How can they help being bored when the world is sooooo boring?

My goal here is to get us to rethink a whole category of modern life: boredom. I'll show that boredom is, first of all, a sin: a sin we are responsible for. Then, I'll discuss how we are not only sinners, but sinned against: our personal sin of boredom is nurtured by a culture of work without dignity.

I. The Sin of Boredom: Dignity Denied

Boredom: restlessness, even when rested. Boredom: feeling "there's nothing to do," and at the same time, there is too much to do. Boredom: weariness without work; even, a determined weariness while avoiding work. Boredom: laborious, but never laboring. Boredom: woefully un-entertained, all the while, surrounded by entertainment.

Boredom: a scourge on our lives, an affliction we often complain of.

We are afflicted with something but, surprise, this is a self-inflicted wound.

Boredom is -- despite what you've heard -- not a situation you are within, but a situation within you. Boredom is a condition you are in: a condition you are responsible for. The world around you is not the problem,  but the world within you; the you in the world is the problem. Boredom is not a state on the map in which you find yourself; it is a state which finds itself in your heart; it is a state of mind, an approach to life.

In other words, boredom is a sin. Thomas Acquinas referred to this sinful state as ACEDIA.

Acedia, for Aquinas, signifies a man renouncing the claim implicit in his human dignity. This man does not want to be who God wants him to be, and that ultimately means that he does not wish to be what he really, fundamentally, is. Acedia is a "despairing refusal to be oneself (Pieper, "Leisure: The Basis of Culture," pg. 7)."

To be myself means, fundamentally, embracing my own personal dignity.  As a dignified person, then, I engage the world around me with joy and energy. The "bored" person is incapable of this because they expect to be engaged by the world. The dignified person is active: they take life, and take life on; they lean into life. The "bored" person is passive: expecting life to come to them.

To be bored is simply this: it is to sin against myself by denying my dignity.

 Boredom is a sin; we must repent. 

That said, we are not just sinners when it comes to boredom; we have been sinned against. We live in a culture that is constantly attacking our dignity. One place where this is most prevalent is the American workplace.

II. The Sin of Boredom: Dignity Denied
I've argued that we ourselves are the root of our own boredom. But, that doesn't mean there are not forces around us which contribute to this malaise-ed daze. In contemporary American life, our whole approach to WORK erodes dignity. Employers deny dignity, and employees cooperate by relinquishing dignity. Employers nurture ACEDIA because they disclaim the dignity of employees; employes nurture ACEDIA because they disregard their own dignity.

In terms of how boredom displays itself in the life of the de-dignified worker, well that's another essay. I'll focus in this essay on how the American workplace is (as a whole) geared toward stripping down human dignity.

This stripping down comes in the form of  an attack on:

1) Enjoyment
2) Individual Creativity
3) Life
4) Will

II.1. The Attack On Enjoyment

We may think, because we work constantly, are successful, and dedicated to our jobs, that we are doing what we should to overcome this weariness that plagues us: this boredom. We may think, because we work hard that we are fully engaged in the enjoyment of our lives.

Actually, our concept of work makes us feel guilty about enjoying life.

An employee is lauded if he puts in extra work, and sleeps at the office. Another employee is ridiculed because he wants to be home at 5 to eat dinner with his family. Or, because he takes a run during lunch (instead of taking, while he is off the clock, a working lunch). 

In such a context, even a man's free time is looked upon as belonging to the employer. If this man says he want a vacation, or seems to have an active social life, or desires some private place in life where work doesn't impinge (i.e. The boss can't call him on his cell phone day and night; coworkers can't send him work related emails 24/7),  he is termed LAZY. In this context leisure becomes another word for laziness, idleness. or sloth. Leisure is  bad. 

For Aquinas, acedia is the incapacity to enjoy leisure. 

This incapacity, far from contributing to productivity is, for Acquinas, the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of "work for work's sake."

"A restlessness, issuing from a lack of will to action, is itself at the bottom of a fanatical and suicidal urge to work."

Need proof that we are working for the sake of work, and that our lifestyle is plagued by joylessness? Consider this: We feel guilty when we go on vacation. Guilty, when we take a day off. Guilty, when we call in sick (no matter how sick we are). Guilty, even, when we spend time with our children or spouse. A reasonable person would feel guilty for working 12 hours, a day and never spending time with his/her children. We feel guilty for only working 12 hours: guilty over the hour we did spend with our children.

We are taught that our MAIN allegiance lies with our employer, not self, not family, and certainly not our happiness.

Think about it: When was the last time your heard your boss praise you for taking a vacation? Probably, never; instead, the man who doesn't take all his vacation days is praised. 

I recently came across a man who talked of being teased and humiliated because he dared to take most (not all!!!) his vacation days. These were vacation days he had earned, and built up. Yet, when he dared use them, he was ridiculed.

So, we are taught, and accept as gospel, that our life is NOT about joy, but rather work. We are human DOINGS, not human BEINGS. 

II.2. The Attack on Individual Creativity

The modern "worker" is characterized by paradox. The worker must be energetic, but he must not be independent. He must be a self-starter, but he'll get in trouble if he starts something himself. The worker possesses energy, and the powers of action, but is discouraged from acting creatively. Every task has a rule book, and a bureaucracy of channels that leave him exhausted. If he should happen to act independently -- even if such an action leads to great profit and benefit for his employer -- he is chided. Independence, and individual creativity, are viewed as insubordination. In such a context, one's individual personality is hindered; what is needed, really required, of the contemporary worker, is not human engagement in labor, but labor without human engagement: mindless, devoted, robotic workaholism. What is needed, required, is a slavish submission to one's superiors.

What is needed is not individual creative persons. 

What is needed is slaves.

II.3. The Attack on Life

Workers are treated as less than creative individual human beings. Treated, as if he had no life outside work. 

He is expected to die for the employer. His life only has value as he devalues it, and any sense of enjoyment in it. His boss says: "You are so important to this company because you are willing to work long hours, and sacrifice anything." Yet, he doesn't see the irony: You are so important because you are willing to give your life; but, in giving your life you are saying your own life is not that important.You are saying your own life has value only to the degree that you are willing to sacrifice it for the employer.

The worker is called to extreme acts of devotion. Acts of such magnitude that we'd expect them in the old south, in the days of slavery. We can't imagine our "morally superior" age could be guilty of abusing and enslaving one another. Yet, consider: 

In many contexts, especially in the contexts where pay is high, and employment is competitive (Think Google, Amazon, Apple, Yahoo, and the recent headlines about despicable, outright abusive treatment, of employees) the work force is expected to endure treatment we'd only associate with slavery in the old south. The expectations are ridiculous:

-Expected to sacrifice dignity. Lower level workers are looked upon as inferior, and expected to mindlessly endure mistreatment. For example, verbal abuse and degradation from leadership (yep, Steve Jobs).

-Expected to sacrifice health. Expected to go without sleep, or proper nutrition (e.g. live out of vending machines), or exercise (e.g. sit inside at a computer all day). 

-Expected to sacrifice family. The worker is called to leave their families for extended periods of time. Expected to work insane hours. Expected, to neglect their children, or else hire caregivers to fulfill the role of parent. Expected, to move their family across country if the job demands. 

-Expected to be on call 24/7, as if they had no private world apart from work. 

Several times, I have worked for companies that would get upset with me if I didn't answer their call on my day/time off. If they called, and I let it go to voice mail, I'd get in trouble when I went back to work.

"Hey," a boss would say, "Why didn't you answer my call? I need you to answer, or call me back ASAP?"
"Even when I'm off?" I protest.
"Yes," the boss would say, chagrined, "I have to be able to get in touch with you."

I'd walking away thinking: Then, why even have a day off? 

Also, if I'm expected to answer, or call you back, even on my day off, then that ruins my day off. It makes the whole day an anxiety ridden affair of hoping I don't get a call from work. It's hard to plan anything when I know I just might get a call from work. It's hard to relax when I'm unofficially on "the clock."

One oddity of this reality of always being unofficially on the clock is that the employee is not compensated at all for this time. This amounts to having an unpaid workforce on "the tip of the finger" of the boss. There is no "me" time over here, and "work time" over there. There's only "work time." Me time is work time.

-Expected to contribute his/her own private financial resources to the company charity. 

I've often heard of employees being badgered into giving to the company charity, and I've had this happen to me. I knew of a man who said that his advancement within his company was directly tied to whether he gave generously to the charity of the company's choosing. 

In this context, employees are not presented with opportunities to give, and then left to their own conscience so as to be a "cheerful giver." Employees are expected, pressured, strong armed, into giving. Contributions are often recorded in a public place so the less generous are shamed. Those employees who do not give generously are, mysteriously, passed over for promotions. Ever heard the Biblical principle, "The worker is worthy of his hire?" Forget that; in the American working world: The worker is not even worthy of his hire; the worker is not even entitled to keep the paycheck he rightfully earned.

I once worked for a company that held a meeting yearly to encourage charitable giving. At the end of the meeting, employees had to line up, and walk out the door. The boss stood at the door, and made each employee sign a sheet stating what they'd like to give, or else, a sheet saying they did not want to give. We actually had to sign a sheet stating we did not want to give the money that was 100% ours!

In short, workers are expected to suffer, to take up their cross and die daily, for their employer. This secular call to die for a cause (the company vision, the stock margins, etc) is shocking. It is assumed that THE WORK, or something to do with the work, has behind it such value as to be worthy of our lives and even our deaths. The man who stops and thinks about this for a moment will shortly come to the conclusion that no company's vision, no matter how grand, is worthy of his life, much less his death. 

Many causes in history have been worthy of death; they were worthy of death because they were grand causes. The cause itself self-evidently declared its worth; the cause is significant, grand, awesome, enthralling; it is worthy of death because it is worthy of death. The willingness to die was not demanded as a prerequisite for joining the cause; it was included in the cause itself, as a sort of natural aside. Sacrifice was a byproduct of being caught up in the grandness of the cause. So, David Livingstone, a man who sacrificed everything, could say, "I never made a sacrifice." 

In the contemporary working world, we are expected to live for work. Expected, to die for work.

Yet, I ask you, is this a cause worth living for? A cause worth dying for?

Can the modern Wall Street Savant who sacrifices his youth, destroys two marriages, alienates his kids, ruins his health, and ends up dying of a heart attack from job related stress in his early 50's say that he lived his life fully? Or, that he died for something worthwhile?


II.4.The Attack On Will

Employees are called on to "die," to make grand sacrifices to the grand cause of work. However, they soon run out of will; it's not long before they start questioning, "Is it worth it?"

This is where the employer steps in to reignite the employees fire for "the cause." How do they do this? They expend massive effort in keeping up the spirits of exhausted employees: their, "morale." 

I was confused when I first heard the word "morale" mentioned, in an offhand comment, in a corporate environment.

I was eating lunch one day with a coworker from a different department. I asked, "How do you liking working over in ______."

She answered, "We are doing OK now, but last year was hard. Our supervisor at the time was unorganized. He had favorites; everyone else, he treated terribly. People from other departments noticed. They kept saying, 'Morale is down over there, but we don't know why.' Well, that was why."

"Morale?" I thought, "interesting choice of words." 

I soon found that "morale" was much on the minds of everyone, and especially my supervisors. They attended workshops on how to improve morale. They returned with bags of tricks, proven ways to boost morale. The result was sometimes silly. After one of these workshops, one supervisor (a diligent individual, and decent boss, but not a people person, at all) abruptly started trying to remember everyone's name, and speak to them individually, daily. Ironically, his attempt to boost morale by being more personal proved to be annoying; he'd make it a point to go around at the end of the day, and say a word to whoever was in the office. This often meant he'd interrupt meetings, or insert himself suddenly in conversations with customers. I liked him better when he was distant; at least, he was sincere.

I started to see that the "fun" work activities (e.g. motivational meetings, pizza day, encouraging memos, freebies, etc.) were orchestrated to boost morale. Previously, I'd thought of these kinds of interruptions in the work day as happy surprises, spontaneous goodwill from above; they came, of a sudden, out of the gracious heart of my employer. After getting a peak into the social engineering that props up the "morale" of a company, I saw something sinister in all the fun. All this was fun arose from a careful plan, out of a manufactured text book, for the perceived good of the company. That is, if it would be better for the company to cut out all fun, even if such measures were harmful to the employees, then things would change, tomorrow. This wasn't fun for the sake of fun; it was serious fun: fun for the sake of morale. After that, office fun was tedious: the birthday cake tasted too sweet; blue jean Friday became a little bluer. 

When I pulled back the curtain, I saw that what I'd taken for tokens of kindness were actually tokens of unkindness. My employer's acts of kindness were geared, not toward my good, but the good of the company. I was, in other words, being manipulated. My employer was making an end run around my will: getting me to do what he wanted, all the while tricking me into thinking it's what I wanted.

*Credit to, Leisure, The Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper for inspiring most of these thoughts. Page numbers refer to pages in that book.


Sadness overwhelms him when he is confronted with the divine goodness immanent in himself.
The contrary of Acedia is man's happy and cheerful affirmation of his own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God - which is to say love... This is at an infinite distance from the "fanatical worker.

-Josef Pieper


Acedia is a vitia capitalia, i.e. a fault from which other faults follow "naturally." There is that restlessness that makes leisure impossible. Then too leisure is only possible when a man is at one with himself, when he acquieces in his own being, whereas the essence of Acedia is the refusal to acquiesce in one's own being. Idleness, and the incapacity for leisure, correspond with one another. Leisure is the contrary of both. This restlessness and despair are the twin children of Acedia. Finally, idleness so far from being synonymous with leisure, is an inner disposition rendering leisure impossible.

-Josef Pieper

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