Most Latter-day Saints are in the habit of being busy. Our families, our Church responsibilities, and our professions vie for our time with their legitimate but never-ending demands. Many of us long for the days when we didn’t feel pulled in so many directions—remember when you were glad to find out the phone was for you? But with all the frustrations of our crowded lives, we still value work as a blessing and a privilege. We work hard; we are pleased with our achievements, our endurance.
Yet at times we may feel that this attitude toward work victimizes us rather than helps us. Somehow, no amount of work ever seems to be enough. One minute we are thinking, “I have more tasks than anyone could possibly fulfill.” The next minute we are thinking, “I probably, somehow, ought to be doing more.”
Even when we do find some non-working time, the feeling that we should be working often seems to plague us. Perhaps you have had a grandmother arrive at your home for what was supposed to be a vacation, but after a quick look at dust in the cupboards or smudges on the windows, she spent her vacation scrubbing instead of resting. Or you’ve observed how easy it is for someone to ruin a perfectly good Monopoly game by saying, just as you are buying Boardwalk or passing Go, “You know, we could all be working on our personal histories.”
If this compulsion for work is something you recognize in your own life, you will understand the heroine’s dilemma in “It Was Friday Afternoon,” a delightful short story by Brigham Young University graduate Lisa Muehle. The story tells of a BYU student who realizes that her classes are over for the week, and she wants to spend her Friday afternoon in the best way she can. She longs for a nice nap; after all, she’s been up much of the night finishing a term paper, and so a nap would be in keeping with the Word of Wisdom. But then she remembers that a recent fireside speaker had reminded them of the wholesomeness of wheat and of the importance of making bread; maybe she should bake some bread that afternoon. But what about physical fitness? Jogging was supposed to be part of her Pursuit of Excellence program, and she had been lax in that commitment. And then there was her scripture reading—she had let that go, too. On the other hand, she really ought to finish her visiting teaching reports right away, or it would be an excellent time to write in her journal. She also thinks of the possibility of studying. Then again, her roommate would be grateful if she would finally get around to cleaning her side of the room. But then—weren’t all these things unimportant compared with the task of finding an eternal companion? After all, marriage was a commandment. Maybe she should go over to the cafeteria for the afternoon and see if she could strike up a conversation with a nice-looking returned missionary. But even if she met someone, would she have time to work him into her schedule? She did have a schedule, because she knew that with a schedule you accomplish more. As the story ends, this student gets into her car and finds herself heading south on Highway I-15 toward California, quietly overwhelmed by a desire to transfer to UCLA. (See Century II, Feb. 1977, pp. 23–27.)
But Lisa’s heroine is wrong if she assumes that this compulsion to work is unique to Latter-day Saint culture. Latter-day Saints did not invent this attitude; rather it belongs historically to the much larger culture of the Western world. Especially during the middle decades of the last century, years when the Church was starting to grow and achieve its identity, most persons who had come to America or were in America were anxious to prove their worth through work. Conveniently, this idealization of work fed a very practical need in the early decades of the Church to give virtually every available minute simply to survive. And it was also consistent with Latter-day directives from the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Thou shalt not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer. …
The Church is anxious to safeguard this general attitude as an important foundation for a productive and constructive life; and to this point in history, so are many other groups. Though we may be quite persistent in preaching the value of work, and though sometimes we may stress different purposes for work, we share basic assumptions with much of the Western world in general.
Yet as Latter-day Saints and other groups have adopted the work ethic into their lives, some people have come to idealize work and its material rewards as the entire meaning of life. They have judged leisure and contemplation as not only useless, but actually sinful. This attitude assumes that self-sacrificing dedication to work will always bring happiness, and it often assumes further that material success is correlated with individual virtue and deservingness.
Under the influence of this somewhat distorted interpretation of work’s meaning, work today has become central to the definition of individual human identity. “And what do you do?” is often the first question we ask a new acquaintance, and the answer to that question seems to answer many unspoken ones about that person’s status, values, and respectability. Some people even describe themselves pleasantly as “workaholics,” though the term suggests an obvious parallel with an addiction that is not admired.
Certainly the work ethic fosters many worthy motives and goals. But because some misinterpret it to mean that any hour not materially productive is an hour wasted, it can betray us into some false and harmful notions. I would like to refer to two of these false assumptions.
The first of these problems is that our too-intense valuing of work has the unfortunate effect of poisoning our leisure. We are afraid of leisure, of unstructured time, of unscheduled hours. I have heard more than one person express misgivings over the consolidated Sunday schedule, simply because they are uncomfortable with the thought of a block of unplanned time, especially on a day of rest. These people seem to believe that unscheduled time is unproductive time. And I overheard a student say one day, “Being busy makes the day go faster.” I’ve worried a lot about that student; her statement is almost frightening. She wished the day to be over; perhaps unknowingly, she wished for the obliteration of time, and saw busy-ness as a means to that obliteration.
The origin of such an attitude is probably the realization that our free time exposes our true interests; it reveals us for what we really are. One of two things can happen to free time. It can be leisure, a time to expand the soul and renew the energies. Or it can instead become something very different: idleness. And it’s idleness, not leisure, that should make us feel guilty.
When people who know no alternative to work other than guilty, passive, puzzled idleness finally manage to take some time off from work for an hour or a week, their feelings are reflected in a rather disheartening statement by author Rust Hills. He said, “The truth is that the only way to keep from feeling really terrible is to work. But sometimes it seems easier just to feel really terrible.”
Our crucial task, then, is to distinguish leisure from idleness. Let me suggest what I think some of the differences are. Idleness puts us in a passive role, whereas leisure usually calls on us to participate mentally or physically or creatively; idleness merely passes time, whereas leisure fills personal needs; idleness occupies us, but leisure renews us; we put the responsibility for filling our idle time on something outside ourselves, whereas we look within ourselves for our leisure. Of course, these distinctions are ultimately private ones; one person may watch football or read novels only in order to numb the mind and extinguish an afternoon, whereas someone else’s approach to football-watching or novel-reading may demand such alertness, such appreciation, that it is the highest kind of leisure.
But always, leisure activity will have, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, the “relish of salvation” about it. (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 3, sc. 3, line 91.) Leisure may mean the salvation of our peace of mind, our physical health, our individuality; and true leisure will be in harmony with spiritual salvation as well. Fortunate is the family whose love of leisure activity can unite them in pursuits that are joyous and praiseworthy and edifying. Such a family can choose many appropriate ways to spend unscheduled Sabbath hours; they welcome those hours as a wonderful gift.
Some of you right now are saying to yourselves, “Wait a minute. When you use phrases like ‘planning leisure’ and ‘attaining leisure,’ what you are calling leisure is beginning to sound a lot like more work.” Maybe so; but it is through thought and preparation that we are often able to spend our non-working hours in rich ways. We do have to make decisions about our leisure, and we also have to make decisions about accepting leisure into our lives. Obviously, leisure isn’t leisure if we’d rather be working. One faculty member at the University of Chicago Medical School tells his students that if a patient is suffering from overwork and exhaustion, they should not prescribe a rest cure unless they are certain the patient can stand it. And some can’t.
Like the problem of the loss of true leisure, our second problem grows out of the work ethic’s misleading emphasis on production. Since our work, according to Western culture, has become a way to validate ourselves as human beings and prove our worth, it seems important to have tangible proof of our work. A missionary wants to be able to point to the converts he has taught; a gardener wants beautiful flowers and vegetables as undeniable evidence of his fine gardening; an employee wants a high salary to prove that society values his work.
The problem is this: Can we re-define work as something that may not bring a new car or a promotion, that may not result in a mowed lawn or a clean oven? Do we value work less if its results are intangible? Can we not value greater sensitivity, greater cultural awareness, and personal growth—results that we probably can’t sell, eat, or show off? I think every Latter-day Saint must deal with this question very seriously. If we are constantly preoccupied with tangible rewards, some tragic things may happen to our motivation or even to our activity.
I’ve always taken great pleasure in remembering an incident from a trip to Spain several years ago, during the first months of missionary work in that country. In Córdoba we met two missionaries. We asked them how the work was going—have you had any baptisms, we asked? No, they said, they hadn’t had any. How about contacts—are you teaching anyone? They said no. They had had one contact, but he was a member of the Spanish Civil Guard, and he knew he would lose his job if he joined the Church. So the missionaries weren’t teaching anyone at the moment. Yet as they told us how difficult and apparently unproductive the work was, these elders radiated cheerfulness and fulfillment. I’m sure they would have liked to write their mission president and their parents about the many families they were baptizing. But it was obvious that these two remarkable young men were determined not to construe the successes of their missionary work in terms of external signs. They had achieved such a level of integrity and maturity that they could serenely carry on with the work, developing themselves personally and spiritually, planting what seeds they could, without worrying what others thought of them. An array of tangible achievements was not essential for them to show other people.
In 1835 Oliver Cowdery gave a special blessing to Parley P. Pratt. The blessing refers to the immense labors that lay before Elder Pratt, with the motives for them, and with the kinds of rewards he could expect for them: “Your calling is not like that of the husbandman, to cultivate a stinted portion of the planet … [who] when … mellow autumn [has] ripened his fruit, gathers it in, and congratulates himself … while he anticipates his winter evenings of relaxation and fireside enjoyments. But, dear Brother, it is far otherwise with you. Your labor must be incessant … you must go forth and labor till the great work is done. It will require a series of years to accomplish it; but you will have this pleasing consolation, that your heavenly Father requires it; the field is His; the work is His.” (History of the Church, 2:192.) That’s how simple it is. The highest motive for such work is not fear of leisure or love of gain, but simply that our Heavenly Father requires it. As Nephi tells us, there is only one proper motive for a laborer in Zion—and that is to labor for Zion. (See 2 Ne. 26:31.)
The work ethic as too often interpreted by Western civilization is seductive. It can lure us into buying some shallow, materialistic goals at a high spiritual price; but if we can cultivate our leisure as a time of spiritual renewal, we can rise above motives of nervous compulsion. And as we determine not to be preoccupied with external rewards, we can escape motives of materialism and status.
Our convictions about the meaning of work in our lives influence our decisions, our human relationships, and our whole sense of life’s purpose. The values we pass on to our children will be determined to a great degree by the way we would answer one short question: “Does hard work always pay off?” No brief answer is adequate. What things are “work”? What kind of “pay” is the most precious?
As Latter-day Saints we know that it is wrong to disdain labor. But we also understand that it is wrong to idealize labor unthinkingly, out of fear of leisure or love of gain. As Jacob cautioned the people of Nephi, “Do not spend … labor for that which cannot satisfy.” (2 Ne. 9:51.)
Karen Lynn, associate professor of English at Brigham Young University, is a member of the Church Music Committee.