Friday, June 11, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Not Going Back

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

If you’ve been watching the numbers over the last few months, it should be evident to even the most Negative Nancy that the COVID-19 rates of infection and death are finally decreasing steadily. We may reasonably discount the weekly cries of the media alarmists about the latest terrifying variant; that’s just what they do when they’re all out of stories about dying polar bears.

Tom: And so we are beginning to hear tentative musings about reopening businesses and getting back to something approaching our pre-March 2020 way of living. As someone who worked in the office throughout the entire song and dance, I was more than a little surprised to read that I am not necessarily in the majority in my desire to see society normalize. Tim Kreider of The Atlantic has decided he’d rather stay in bed, along with untold numbers of others who would rather work from home forever ... or preferably not work at all.

IC, didn’t one of the ‘seven deadlies’ use to be the sin of sloth?

The Sin of Sloth

Immanuel Can: Well, in Catholic theology it was. And the famed Protestant Work Ethic touted by Weber had no place for it, for sure. I’m not sure that activity for activity’s sake is a curative — there are such things as obsessive workers and even workaholics, and neither is much of an improvement over sloth. But there is something in the Word about “the sweat of one’s brow” and about a man who doesn’t work not getting to eat. So let’s go with that.

Tom: Sure. Then there’s Ecclesiastes: “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.” Or the apostle Paul: “Cretans are lazy gluttons.” Or Proverbs: “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.” All these are descriptive rather than prescriptive, but the negative association is definitely there in scripture. Then, on the prescriptive side, there is “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands.”

IC: What’s on your mind, Tom?

Tom: It seems like being locked down has become an excuse to opt out of life for a certain segment of the population. In his article, Kreider describes losing interest in human interaction, watching way too much TV, becoming depressed and self-indulgent, learning to live with a lower income and liking it, and deciding he hates the rat race. Some of these epiphanies are not bad things — as you point out, workaholism is no Christian virtue — but others are profoundly antisocial, defeatist and atomistic. An existence like this, facilitated and prolonged primarily through tax dollars willingly accepted, would be an exceedingly unchristian way to live.

IC: Okay, yes, I see that. Continue.

Something to Share

Tom: A Christian labors not just for the sake of it, but “so that he may have something to share with anyone in need”. And “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” So there’s more to going out and working than job satisfaction, personal development or paying my bills. For men at least, it’s a Christian duty not to be a burden to others, and to be able to help them out.

IC: Fair enough. But there is more than one explanation for the change in people’s attitudes toward office work during the last year, I think. Another is that there are a lot of things about conventional work environments that it turns out are no longer necessary. The obvious ones, at least for some jobs, are large, centralized office buildings, the fixed eight-hour day, business attire, excessive travel and daily commutes. Other aspects of daily living have essentially been made obsolete by the internet: things like going shopping or doing banking in person are now replaced in most people’s experience by online equivalents, and home repairs are taking over from expensive foreign vacations. In all, COVID lockdowns accelerated a shift to a wider use of virtual reality that was already (somewhat sluggishly) underway, I think. The switch may have been coming, but COVID ramped it up in a serious way. People are now aware that many of the old patterns were merely habitual, not essential, and not particularly well-rationalized. So I think they may well be reluctant to return to procedures that no longer make much sense, and which make them artificially busier than they need to be.

Tom: All that is true. And as Christians we have no reason to be concerned about a general disinclination to return to an office space when one can do one’s job from home. Traveling or not traveling; commuting or not commuting — these are not moral issues, after all. The newly-available work options are the product of technology, and the pace of change is very much out of our hands, though as people who are supposed to be displaying Christ to those around us, we may want to think seriously about how we can reach out to and be helpful to our unsaved friends and neighbors who have lost their jobs or had their entire career trajectory suddenly become obsolete as a result of it. So, yes, where a person who used to work in the office has found they prefer to work at home post-COVID, I see no issue with that, though their employer may have one if he’s stuck in a long-term lease on a downtown property. I also see no issue with another feature of the post-COVID landscape, which is that more than a few Christian wives who had menial or low-paying jobs in the workforce have found they actually really like being homemakers instead, and that they can make the lifestyle work financially if they are careful. That’s been a blessing in disguise, and it has the potential to be a net gain for the church.

Voluntary and Involuntary Hermits

But Kreider’s article is not really about those people so much as it is about people who have been rendered socially dysfunctional — or are voluntarily opting to become hermits — because of the enforced experience of prolonged social isolation. They are not afraid of going back to work, or simply prefer to work from home; they don’t want to work at all, and have become habituated to their own isolation.

IC: I wonder if Kreider is speaking for the general public or just for himself.

Tom: Both. He says, “A lot of people went very far away over the course of this past year, deep into themselves, and not all of us are going to come all the way back.” Earlier, he says, “More and more people have noticed that some of the basic American axioms — that hard work is a virtue, productivity is an end in itself — are [****].” So the particulars of his lived experience are personal, of course, but he thinks he’s giving voice to the feelings of a significant segment of the public.

IC: He might be. But it takes more than his opinion for it to be so, of course.

I think it’s fair to say that at least for a while, lots of people’s feelings and attitudes about work are likely to be different. I also think we’re unlikely ever to settle back quite into the way things were. We’ve learned too much from the experiment of being out of conventional workspaces to bounce back automatically.

Taking a Poll

Tom: I think that’s very likely to be true. My boss did a poll about six weeks ago. Of the 30-odd people who used to work in the office with me, only ten or twelve would be back if given the choice. Several women who were working from home quit outright after a few months. They just didn’t want to do the job anymore, and the forced change of daily routine served as a good jumping-off point. Another large group are sick of the commute and will continue provided they have the option to work from home. Two or three are still terrified and don’t want to return in September because they might get sick. And eight or so can’t wait to get back to the office. So I think Kreider is probably right. It’s not 80% of the workforce who will relate to his experiences at home, but it’s probably in the 20-30% range.

I’m wondering if there are any believers who are finding themselves struggling with inertia. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. And I’m wondering if a self-absorbed, cynical, defeatist spirit might be creeping in among the people of God so that when a return to some of the more visible aspects of the Lord’s work becomes possible, there might be a few Christians who have found a new way of living; a new focus on self and entertainment they will not easily give up.

IC: That’s a serious worry. And I do have some thoughts on the Christian dimension of this. But I don’t think they relate so much to sloth, as in Kreider’s case, but rather to other things.

But if I get into that, this post is going to double in length, at least. So maybe I have to leave that as a teaser for later. But I’ve been thinking a lot about that.

Tom: Sure. Why don’t we follow that up next week.

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