How Rest Can Save the Conversation on Vocation From Itself: Part 2, Our Restless World

See the first post in this series here.

My students and I are not the only ones struggling to understand and experience a sense of agency with regard to the way we spend time. Political, economic, and technological developments of the past few decades have given us the illusion of control over our time while simultaneously, if slowly, stripping us of that control.

Political and economic shifts have diminished the role of rest in the moral and political imagination. While increased free time was once assumed to be a natural result of economic progress, we have turned economic progress into an occasion to further colonize time and attention. (In his 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that economic progress would lead to 15-hour work weeks. See this lecture, too.)

As Benjamin Hunnicut notes in Free Time, increased free time is the “forgotten American dream.” Instead of a worthy goal, rest is often treated as a purely instrumental good, merely the condition for sustaining high levels of work. We simply won’t be at our productive best if we allow ourselves to further erode the quantity or quality of the rest that is supposed to rejuvenate us for our work.

To be certain that we’re leveraging our rest for greater productivity, we often subject rest to the same sorts of calculus that we apply to work. Whatever one thinks about the substantive merits of free time as the American dream, we should admit that this calculus, and our productivity-obsessed culture, leaves little room to consider the moral and political significance of rest.

More recent political and economic shifts include the introduction of new sorts of instability, overwork, and a lack of (or false sense of) agency that come along with fundamental changes in work often described as the “gig economy” or “tumbleweed society.” Contingent, on-demand work, especially in a new “sharing economy,” disrupts stable structures and rhythms of employment, introducing both flexibility and unpredictability.

This instability of contingent work is increasingly accepted as normal feature of labor in the United States, and not only a hardship borne by the poor. Even in the middle class, many work multiple jobs and take on additional short-term paid work. The flexibility of the gig economy reinforces a thin sort of agency – an agency that is often experienced only at the margins of our time.

Those most heavily involved in the gig economy have gained some measure of control over fragments of their lives while giving up control over and stability in larger shares of their finances, time, and attention. While we should not conflate or confuse the situations of the poorest, who may work multiple jobs in hopes of mere subsistence, with those of middle class workers who choose to supplement their income with optional additional employment, we should acknowledge that changes in the way we work have contributed to an increasingly fragmented experience of time across socioeconomic groups. (Class differences in this area remain important. Here’s one fictional exploration that illustrates how.)

Changes in the landscape of labor have been joined by the pervasiveness of network technologies such as social media and infotainment web sites, as well as devices that keep us always potentially connected. It should be noted that these are by no means the first technologies to accelerate the experience of time or disrupt attention. Lewis Mumford points out that the mechanical clock itself was the most significant invention of the industrial revolution, because it allowed time to be ordered more precisely into hours, minutes, and seconds, and permitted the calculus of efficiency to dominate the experience of time.

Such technologies reward a constant openness to interruption that colonizes and fragments our time and attention (more on that here.) While many of these innovations, and perhaps all of the technologies on which they are based, were meant to save time by speeding up processes, they have, paradoxically cost us time. As Mark C. Taylor writes of the technological changes that have sped up our lives, “The faster we go, the less time we have, and the less time we have, the faster we think we have to go.”

These shifting work patterns and new technologies often leave us with what author Brigid Schulte has described as “time confetti,” scraps of time so small that we can only watch them fall all around us and we find them impossible to stitch together into some more useful, meaningful, or coherent moment.

The problem of time confetti affects us all differently, but it affects us all. Due to uneven divisions of household labor, women experience this fragmentation to a greater degree than do men. While the poorest experience it as a submission to a certain sort of necessity, the wealthy experience it as a false liberty. But however it is experienced, it is often eventually joined by a sense of powerlessness and lack of agency. As Schulte writes, “When you are overwhelmed, when you can neither predict nor control the forces shaping your time, when you don’t even have time to think about why you’re overwhelmed, much less what to do about it, you are powerless.”

Not only powerless, but also restless. In our feverish movement from one job to the next, from one social network to the next, from one device to the next, truly restful time, in the form of sleep, leisure, and play, eludes many. Countless studies have demonstrated that we live in a sleep deprived society.We see leisure time dwindling.

While some researchers have insisted that we have not lost leisure time – that the average resident of the United States has had 30 hours of leisure time per week for generations – we have a limited ability to recognize it, an even more limited ability to think carefully about it, and a still more limited ability to do anything worthwhile with it.

Many of us are largely unfamiliar with play – unstructured time devoted to non-goal-oriented activities as inherent goods. In all of these manifestations, our restlessness is a missed opportunity to see how we might honor God by recognizing, understanding, and putting to worthwhile use our time.

Stay tuned for a discussion of rest in the Old Testament. Meanwhile, you can follow me and contribute to the conversation on Twitter.

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