One of the perks of aging, I would hope, is realizing what’s important and how much of what we thought was important really matters little in the larger scheme of our brief lives.
Yet we live in a society that continues to tell us that our top priority – sometimes our very being – is the work we do, the success we have in our careers, and the fame and fortune we accumulate. In our consumerist society, we’d expect that this would not only keep us consuming to look successful, but also do what it actually does – make relationships less important than what increases our capital.
Of course, we can’t live here without an income and income is now based on how much we’re willing to sacrifice for the company. Americans have the least vacation time of anyone in the developed world and aren’t taking the time-off they’ve earned.
Americans don’t have the mandatory vacation, or paid family and sick leave time Europeans have to give us the space to nurture relationships. Instead, our public policy has focused on how to increase business earnings.
The workplace has become the major location for relationships because it dominates our waking time. It’s no wonder that so many affairs begin there with people we feel we’ve become closest.
Work becomes so central to so many lives that it’s difficult for many to retire when they should. I’ve even talked to people who are afraid to retire. Without that work, we’re stuck with what we’ve developed of our other relationships and what we work-centeredly call “outside” activities.
As a department chairperson, when we hired new faculty, I cautioned them not to make the university their life. Like any corporation, it would take advantage of them and some day spit them out ready to move on without them.
Work demands so much energy and attention that we’re tired when we get back home and need what’s left of weekends to recover from it, much less get the other business and requirements of living done. We fall into habits that assist our recovery, escapes we don’t do just for fun — alcohol, drugs, sports, etc.
Now fearing that this work-obsession is cutting into employee productivity, even businesses are offering employee programs on “work/life balance” or mindfulness and the like so that: “if you aren’t doing the work you love, then, darn it all, you should love the work you do.”
The pressure to fall adoringly in line is immense. “Compensation” is based on it as well as reputation, self-definition, admiration and self-acceptance.
We’re not supposed to question this too deeply. We’re not supposed to even dream of alternatives.
We’re considered sane if we believe there are none. We’re considered anti-business if we propose government alternatives to this thinking.
And yet along with poverty, the culture’s hyper-work-ethic is one of the top factors hurting the ability to nurture long-lasting relationships. Unless it’s challenged, our friendships and partnered relationships will suffer, playing a distant second fiddle to how we make money.
The question is how can it be fought or at least mitigated. And the answer is that it has to be a conscious decision and process.
First, it has to be accepted as a problem. Everything in our profit-oriented, coping-oriented, not human-oriented and healing-oriented, society wants to minimize this issue. Society prefers denial
Second, because this is counter-cultural, we’re going to really need to believe that this is the path we should be on. If we don’t, we have made our choice – accepting the false cultural teaching that we can instead have it all. We are looking at the road less traveled here.
Third, we’ll have to consciously prioritize our relationships over our careers. Sons, daughters, granddaughters, grandsons, nieces and nephews grow up before we know. Our loves will age and die.
People we love are today, not tomorrow, being affected by our relationships with them. Today is the day to begin our relationship journey if we value these relationships.
Fourth, we’ll need to make regular decisions that choose relationships over the hyper-demands of our careers. This will mean facing our fears and the criticism of others and reorienting ourselves every time we fall off the relationship wagon.
Fifth, it means we’ll have to start one step at a time with small decisions that contradict the cultural model. It’s a growing consciousness but it’s not all or nothing all at once.
Sixth, while we’re still on our work career, we will need to ask ourselves what our real passion in life is, answer that, and begin its pursuit. This might even require counseling or at least the ear of a close friend.
No one on their deathbed ever said that they regretted not spending more time at the office.
So, go for it, don’t do it perfectly, and keep in touch. Share with the rest of us how you’re doing.