2016-06-30
Picture yourself in the halcyon days of childhood. You are putting on your jacket, getting ready to leave home, when your mother calls out your name.

"Where are you going?" she asks.

"Out," you say.

"With whom?" she continues.

"My friends," you answer.

"To do what?" she inquires.

"Nothing," you say.

And it was true. You had nothing in mind. Perhaps you would meet a friend, sit on a stoop, stand on a corner, or toss a ball. In the good old days, when the world was a simpler place, children didn't plot and plan. They simply went out and played with kids they liked. Times have changed. Today, children learn that planning is the hallmark of a well-lived life. They see their parents armed with calendars and date books, making back-to-back appointments and jetting around the country on marathon business trips, seldom stopping to take a breather. The emphasis on being busy is so great that Richard Stengel wrote the following in The New Yorker:

Nowadays, people don't ask you how you are, they say, 'Are you busy?' meaning, 'Are you well?' If someone actually does ask you how you are, the most cheerful answer, of course, is a robust 'Busy!' to which the person will reply 'Good! "Busy' used to be a negative sort of word. It meant having no time for yourself, no leisure. 'No, I can't come out this weekend, I'm too busy.' Sorry about that, you poor stiff. Now, though, busyness is bullish. Conspicuous industriousness is the rule.
"Conspicuous industriousness" is fancy talk for chasing your own tail. This is the habit of rushing around frantically and feeling quite noble even when you go nowhere fast. Equipped with cell phones, beepers, and handheld computers, the "conspicuously industrious" blur the line between home and office by working anytime, anywhere. Always on call, they make a perverse case for the argument that work isn't a part of life, but rather that life is a part of work. They embody the new twenty-first century ideal--"I work, therefore I am."

And whether they know it or not, they are competitors in the rat race. Constantly busy, moving at breakneck speed, they wake, work, earn, spend, shovel down food, and collapse--only to begin the same vicious cycle over again the next day. Never knowing which end is up, they live according to the "Rules of the Rat Race," an unwritten code of conduct that says you should:

1. Bite off more than you can chew.

2. Act as if enough is never enough.

3. Chase your tail and run to stand still.

4. View life as a part of work, instead of work as a part of life.

5. Acknowledge that some rats are more equal than others.

Perhaps it was in the aftermath of World War II that the Rules of the Rat Race first took shape. Fresh from victory on the international front, America was basking in a new spirit of optimism and economic prosperity. As cars rolled off the assembly line and houses rose up from the ground in manicured suburbs, there was a feeling of unlimited possibility in the air. The Great Depression was a thing of the past; the standard of living was rising; and scientific innovation was bringing forth everything from the polio vaccine and penicillin to filtered cigarettes and baby formulas.

All work and no play make Jack a dull boy...
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  • Our cultural desire for affluence was nurtured by the media, which also sowed the seeds of discontent. As Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her book, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, television brought "the most decrepit ghetto dwelling intimate glimpses into the 'lifestyles of the rich and famous,' not to mention the merely affluent. Studying the televised array of products and comforts available, seemingly, to everyone else, the poor become more dangerous."

    The gnawing dissatisfaction that was bred helped contribute to a constant drive for economic growth. Not everyone viewed it as a good thing. Former Czech president Vaclav Havel has written that in America "there is the blind worship of perpetual economic growth and consumption, regardless of their destructive impact on the environment, or how subject they are to the dictates of materialism and consumerism, or how they, through the omnipresence of television and advertising, promote uniformity and banality instead of a respect for human uniqueness."


    The deterioration of our humanity is no small concern. We are, as the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once noted, "spiritual beings having a human experience," not consumers having a material experience. Our souls need time to think, dream, and reflect. We benefit from doing nothing, from going out to play, from giving from the heart and spending time in nature. Most of all we benefit from having healthy, strong, and loving relationships with other people and from exercising the altruistic parts of ourselves. These activities nurture our souls in both hidden and obvious ways.

    Once upon a time it was said that all work and no play made Jack a dull boy. Then Jack entered the rat race and became conspicuously industrious. He would probably like to put on his jacket and tell Mom that he's going outside to do nothing. But oops! That's his beeper going off. Gotta go. Might be the boss.

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