The relentless demands of daily work may not only impede our quality of life but also a right judgment of its purpose.
The fictional Democratic President Jed Bartlet used a phrase which spoke powerfully of the relentless demands of high office. A problem would be solved or a decision reached and he would bark a nanosecond later: ‘what’s next?’ Deprived of space to think and with an in-tray full of issues that would render most people paralysed, the only recourse was to develop a remorseless momentum to the endless tasks of the presidency. That much is understandable. Why, though, has such an attitude become the default setting of modern life?
The pace at which busy people live has become palpably faster in this working generation. There are few signs of resistance to this and mostly people wear their busyness as a badge of honour. The Protestant work ethic still exerts a magnetic pull on modern life, leading everyone to claim that they are working hard even when they aren’t. This defence only entrenches a culture of activity about which some serious questions should be asked.
Summer holidays perform a valuable function in slowing people down, albeit briefly. Most of those privileged enough to find a fortnight to spend away from their usual duties return to normal life feeling more poised and peaceful about their lives. That this may not last does not diminish the beneficent effect of living slowly for a time; holidays are a witness to a profound spiritual truth about the contingency of the human race and the destiny it finds in God. However, the terms of reference for this question about work-life balance are set in a way which affords only one kind of answer. We speak of it as a quality of life issue. In this we reveal the dominant motif of our times: we are consumers who look for experiences which enrich us. As a component of our lives, this is fair enough. A more significant question underlies it though. The speed we live at begs the question: what is the purpose of life?
Approaching this with unsparing honesty is rare. We are more comfortable with the question: what’s next? This is the risk of a life lived at speed, that we become dangerously unreflective. There is something beguiling about the idea that we can only meet with God in the present because this is the only moment we inhabit at any one time. Yet to encounter God now we must shape this round a sense of where we have come from and where we are going to. The past and the future are irreplaceable resources for negotiating the present. Scripture is informative here, for the people of God in the Old Testament were reminded time and again of the great saving acts of God in the history of Israel as a channel through which to encounter him now. Neglect of the past and the memory of God’s loving purposes leads to a haemorrhaging of faith in the present. By the same token, the New Testament infuses the people of God with a sure and certain hope of what is to come: the idea that life has a goal and that it is God himself, to which we are drawn. Both the past and the future are essential references for understanding where we have come from and where we are going. Yet this is not how we tend to live.
The journey we are on feels too much like the motorway. Those who drive alone for long periods of time on a motorway where there is little chance to gaze at scenery are subject to a peculiar psychological trick. Despite having travelled a hundred miles they usually cannot remember anything of distinction about the journey. It is as if the recollection has been wiped from their mind. At the same time they are not thinking meaningfully about their destination. They will do that in the final moments before they arrive. In the meantime their gaze is fixed on the road just in front of them. This is the totality of their existence: an endless sequence of road formations, each indistinguishable from the next. In the same way our preoccupation with the next thing in our life and the need to do it as quickly as possible inhibits us from understanding the purpose of what we do. We travel through life in the same kind of hypnotic trance that the motorway driver experiences. It seems incredible to think that we could live a whole life this way, but lives are lived in the accumulation of days which slip away from us.
Those who build into their lives a means of reflecting on the past as a way of venturing into the future come closest to answering the deepest question of all: what is the purpose of their life? It is not something the Christian community expresses anywhere near as well as it ought to, as we also allow the frantic impulses of the urgent to suppress what is important. Sometimes just a subtle nudge in the right direction is all it takes and a hyphen will do for us here. We all love times of recreation and it’s where we find our quality of life. God is looking to make these times of re-creation, out of which human purpose is shaped for good.
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