Time out necessary to help 'save our souls'

The spirit behind taking time out on the Sabbath is as pivotal to a rounded life as ever it was, writes Ian Harris.

"Where is the life we have lost in the living?" asked poet T.S. Eliot nearly 80 years ago, in the pageant play The Rock.

It is a good question for any era, because it invites us to pause and check what life really is all about. It is particularly pertinent to New Zealand today, since for many people workplace goals and pressures are constantly undermining the ideal of a healthy work-life balance.

For quite different reasons, it is also a good question in relation to the thousands of people who cannot get a job, and for whom work-life balance is therefore a chimera.

Work and all that flows from it is central not only to the economy, but also to the human enterprise.

Evidence abounds that many New Zealanders are feeling the strain from working too long and too hard. They stay back in the office, take work home, keep abreast of a torrent of emails on their home PC, are pursued by cellphone in what should be their own time.

It would be fascinating to know the toll the over-work syndrome has taken in recent years in poor health, stressed family relationships, broken marriages, distorted values and warped personalities - and to know how many victims would recast their priorities if they could have their time again.

The problem, however, is not unique to us moderns. A better work-life balance is precisely what the ancient Hebrews were seeking through their Sabbath day of rest. Australian Jew Bernard Boas goes so far as to describe this as "man's greatest invention". It's easy to see why.

The Sabbath arose out of a period when the Hebrews were cruelly exploited as slaves in Egypt. Wageless labour confers obvious benefits on the employer, so when their leader Moses tried to negotiate time out for a religious festival, the Pharaoh gave him short shrift.

"What do you mean by distracting the people from their labours?" he bellows.

"Get back to work!"

To rub the point home, and anticipating by 3000 years the current management mantra "more with less", he demanded the Israelites find their own straw to make their bricks in future, and still fill their daily quota.

Liberation came only when the Hebrews escaped across the Red Sea. For 40 years they roamed the Sinai Peninsula and during that time, as the Bible tells it, Moses received the Ten Commandments. High among them was to keep the Sabbath.

Everyone was to benefit from this - even slaves and farm animals, a huge advance in ideas of fairness and justice.

"You shall not do any work - you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your ox, your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger within your settlements."

It was also a day to remember the God who had delivered them from Egypt and made life as a free people possible.

Sabbath observance degenerated over the centuries into pettifogging restrictions on Orthodox Jews, while in Protestant countries a dour sabbatarian piety led to a shut-down of entertainment and sport as well as commerce.

In some city parks, children's swings were locked on Sundays. A Presbyterian purist even denounced Sunday milk deliveries as a sin "on a par with prostitution and the opium trade".

Those excesses have passed, but contrary ones have replaced them. Material wealth on a scale unimaginable to our forebears has not led to a more rounded work-life balance. Working through lunch breaks, into evenings and at weekends is not seen as stupid, but as praiseworthy. Some career-driven women pass up the chance to have children.

Wants become needs - in houses, gardens, cars, electronic gadgetry, travel, fashion - and there is always someone better off to measure oneself against and keep the pressure on to acquire more.

Jesus put in a nutshell the shortcomings of consumerism in an economics-obsessed society: "What will it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your own soul?"

In other words, life is not just about having more: it is about being more. Over-work may satisfy the first of these, but it suffocates the second.

The spirit behind the Sabbath - to take time out for reflection and re-creation, to spend time nurturing and being nurtured by family and friends, to savour our existence and the Godness inherent in being alive is as pivotal to a rounded life as ever it was.

In our modern, pluralist society, that need not happen for everyone on the same day of the week. But it needs to happen nonetheless.

Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator


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