Outside of Chinese sweat shops, Americans are by-and-large regarded as the hardest working people on earth. This is particularly true when compared to the long-time history of less-work-and-more-play written into law in major European nations. That practice may be on the decline because of the massive government debt crises in places like Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, among others. Ample pensions, early retirement and long vacations contribute to the imbalance in government revenues that is threatening the stability of those countries - and leading to riots in many places contesting the cuts to pensions, play and pay.
Until now, Europeans have extolled and been praised for promoting a better balance between work and leisure than we enjoy in America. "Work-life balance" is what it's called. One anthropological definition of happiness, according to Wikipedia, is "to have as little separation as possible between your work and your play." If this is the measure, we flat fail.
U.S. workers have long been known to have the fewest vacation days and the longest average workweek anywhere in the world. In today's economy, many employers are operating with fewer employees, but working those that remain almost to the breaking point. We are a driven people whose DNA reflects the roots of the historical American route to success: Start with nothing, work hard, skip play and one day hope to enjoy the fruits of your labors, perhaps from a retirement perch overlooking a lake, a mountain or an ocean.
The intense focus on work it takes to get to that point - and the imbalance with leisure commensurate to the workload - can be killing, literally. Heart attacks, ulcers and the effects of constant stress take their toll, not just on our human bodies, but also our relationships and emotional health. If and when you make it to retirement, you might arrive beaten and bowed, and the paradise you envisioned may look nothing like reality when, for many these days, part-time work or a second career is a necessity. Even church, school or civic volunteerism on top of family obligations can make retirement just as busy. Just stop. Take a deep breath. Make that 20 or so. Find some roses and smell them. Go for a 30-minute walk. Turn off all the electronic noise in the house and enjoy the silence. Turn off the constant chatter in your head. Pray. Meditate for something like 10 minutes a day. (And, meditation will take practice. It doesn't come naturally. Everyone's mind strays. Just keep pulling your mind back to a focus on your breathing. One day it will be easy, but only with practice.) Start a journal. Go fishing. Read some poetry or listen to some music, if that's what floats your boat. Go out and putter in the garden. Sit down and play with the dog or cat, if the cat's got time for you. The dog surely will.
I haven't told you anything here that you haven't heard or read before, but the point to be made is that if we don't put something from the list above on the daily to-do list, we will lose ourselves to the ebb and flow of life. It is said that if we give "it" all away - all our emotional resources - in the course of daily work, whatever might constitute "work," there'll be nothing left for our own sustenance. Full-time work without part-time play deadens the experience of life as it was designed and meant to be lived - with all the senses engaged.
For many, including me, taking time for one's self is a guilt-inducing proposition. I happen to subscribe to the old Satchel Paige quote: "Don't look back. Somebody might be gaining on you." But these days, I'm questioning the wisdom of that philosophy. Maybe the years are making some of us question the tenets that have undergirded our lives to this point. It's a good thing if that happens while there's still time to make some changes, but sad if it's a deathbed revelation. Saying is one thing, doing another, but the truth is that in order to have anything to give to family, friends and the world, one's own pot needs to be refilled - from the inside out.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.