Friday, January 25, 2019

Driven and Depleted, Reflections on Orientations to Work

“And the fish in the river died, and the river stank” (1). This is a description of a plague upon the Nile river, at a time that the Hebrews were dehumanised and driven to perform hard labour. In our own time, the depletion of the Darling river system and the death of over a million fish at Menindee is devastating for the people who live near and depend on the river. While this blog post is about depleted human beings, rather than rivers I see a parallel between the ways in which we are taking too much out of rivers and humans. In this blog post I argue that the stresses of modern life can be reduced by de-emphasising materialistic striving and replacing it with a more spiritual and accepting worldview.

I was moved by an article by Dr. Anne Helen Petersen on How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation (2). She describes depleted people. Simple tasks can make millennials feel overwhelmed. “I was deep in a cycle of “errand paralysis.” I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months. None of these tasks were that hard: getting knives sharpened, or vacuuming my car. A handful of emails — one from a dear friend, one from a former student asking how my life was going — festered in my personal inbox,... to the point that I started calling it the “inbox of shame.” 
Petersen argues that: “Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation.’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”

What is going on? Some of the elements in the article by Petersen are the following: 

Purpose: This generation has been “trained, tailored, primed, and optimized for the workplace — first in school...— starting as very young children”. (3)

Expectations: Millenials have great expectations that emphasise individual fulfillment and success: A students told Professor Petersen: “I want a cool job I’m passionate about!” For millenials the job needed to tick 3 boxes; “employment that reflects well on their parents (steady, decently paying...) that’s also impressive to their peers (at a “cool” company) and “doing work that you’re passionate about”. More broadly, there were expectations that the current generation would be better off than their parents’ generation in terms of health and finances. Many millennials have realised that this expectation is not being met. “One thing that makes that realization sting even more is watching others live their seemingly cool, passionate, worthwhile lives online”.  

Work Conditions and rewards: Apart from the distortions created on social media, there are real injustices in the ways that many modern workers are rewarded for their hard work. The nature of the work itself is exhausting for many people. There is a tendency to work 24/7, replying to emails in bed, is one example of this. “The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced”. 

How does one respond to this situation from a Jewish perspective? 

Judaism insists that beyond values like progress, and success in the “market”, lies a higher spiritual purpose to life. To protect the earth (4) in addition to working it (5), “The doing of justice, the love of kindness, and to walk discreetly with your God” (6); It is about righteousness (7), and holiness (8) and behaving in way that contributes to the “glory of God” (9). Of course, one does not need to be religious to live for a higher purpose. 

Like life in general, education must also be oriented toward a higher purpose, preparing children for this purpose rather than for work. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that education focused on work-readiness was spiritually similar to what the Egyptians tried to do when they threw Hebrew boys into the Nile. The Nile was an Egyptian God and the source of their livelihood. The Rebbe railed against those he believed were “throwing Jewish children in to the river of the customs and mannerisms of the land, ...which to their mind gives them “Parnasa”, their livelihood” (10). 

The disregard for secular knowledge can certainly go too far. Good Jewish schools combine Torah education and excellent secular education. Their students learn; how to be good, well functioning people, good Jews, as well as the skills and knowledge required for the workplace. 

The virtue of diligent work in highly prized in Judaism (11). However, let us not deceive ourselves that preparation and hard work always deliver wealth. Expectation is a great source of misery. It is utter rubbish to believe that if you expect something “the universe will give it to you”. In fact the evidence proves that exclusively positive thinking can reduce your successes  (12). Instead we are encouraged to aspire to equanimity- the ultimate virtue (13), happily accepting whatever outcome we get (14). Not easy, but worth aspiring to. 

Freed of expectations we can try to ‘go with the flow’ rather than be driven at work. We are instructed to rest on the Sabbath but in six days we should do “all our work” (15). This means that on Friday when we finish work, we regard it as complete and avoid thinking about on the Sabbath (16). Any work not done in the previous week is irrelevant to the week that passed. It is next week’s work! The psalms said it best “It is a falsehood for you, early risers, delayers of sleep, eaters of bread of tension! Indeed He [God] will give sleep to those he loves” (17). 

To change our individual thinking and habits is not enough. Pederson reflects on the fact that despite seeing injustices in the workplace, “we didn’t try to break the system, since that’s not how we’d been raised. We tried to win it”. The Torah demands that “justice, justice you shall pursue” (17). Perhaps we can start with replenishing ourselves by orienting ourselves to a more spiritual sense of purpose and a balanced pace of work and life. The next step is to engage with our communities and politics to ensure that people, the rivers and natural environments that nurture us are all cared for effectively. 

  1. Exodus 7:21
  3. Malcolm Harris cited in Petersen 
  4. Genesis 2:15
  5. Ibid and Job 5:7
  6. Micah 6:8
  7. Genesis 18:19
  8. Leviticus 19:2
  9. Pirkey Avot, 6:11
  10. Likutei Sichos Vol 1, p. 111-112
  11. Genesis 29:7, and 31:39-40 and many other sources in the oral law
  12. Kappes, H. and Oettingen, in Lomas, T. (2016) The Positive Power of Negative Emotions, Piatkus, p. 48
  13. R. Bachya ibn Pakuda (Chovot Halevovot, Sha’ar Yichud Hama'aseh, ch. 5), p. 44 in Feldheim edition,  The Baal Shem Tov, 
  14. Pirkey Avot,4:1
  15. Exodus 20:9 
  16. Mechilta cited in Rashi
  17. Psalm 127:2
  18. Deuteronomy 16:20