On the Merits of NOT Working Hard

 

This wasn’t work

 

We have such a struggle mentality in this country. It harkens back way more than 7 generations for most of us, whether we are Daughters of the American Revolution and came over with our Protestant Work Ethic packed in the trunk next to our bonnets, or the second generation Mexican immigrant whose parents busted their butts to come here to find a way to bust their butts even harder.  We see the value in hard work. We admire stories of people who have overcome adversity. We deeply resent people who seem to be “getting it easy” — whether that is the silver spoon politician who looks like he had everything handed to him, or the welfare mom with subsidized healthcare who looks like she had everything handed to her.  Work is good, right? It builds character and strength and gets you well deserved rewards.  But do we only get rewards when it is work? Isn’t there some way we can enjoy our lives without so much trudgery?  Maybe work is the wrong word. Maybe it is effort.

Here’s a story: When I was teaching 9th grade in an affluent suburb, I required a weekly 5 paragraph essay of each of my college prep science students (and you can imagine the push back I got because this ISN’T ENGLISH CLASS!). The point was learning to think critically, express your discoveries, and listen — how are these not science skills? Anyway, I started the year out “easy” by assigning essays that had no right or wrong answer with grading on a rubric that focussed on the key things I needed as a science teacher, and left grammar and whatnot to the lady down the hall. We’d discuss some provocative subject on Friday, something about which kids would actually have an opinion  (Is Marijuana a gateway drug? What are the ways in which new technology actually makes life more complicated?  Who should pay for cancer research?), and the kid would say his opinion, back it up with some evidence or anecdotes, maybe refute opposing opinions thoughtfully, and bring home his point. This was my favorite part of the job.  In October, this lovely (helicopter) Mom came in and she was disappointed in me that her son was doing so poorly on these essays. She mentioned that in eighth grade, in addition to the rubric, the kid would also get some credit for effort.  She thought maybe I could do the same?  My response was dumb founded, and rude.  It came out something like this: “Maam, I’m sorry, but if you are 14 years old, heading to college, have been in the excellent XXXX Public School program for 9 years, and writing 5 paragraphs about how you feel about something is a challenge, that is time for intervention, not credit.”  My contract was not renewed.

So there it is, that balance between work and reward. Effort. Credit. It should feel good to work on something, struggle through an obstacle, and come out on the other side with new muscles, new insights, improved energy that can be put to good use helping someone else through their struggles. But always this desire to “get credit.”  Why does one person have a life-altering accident and it turns them into an advocate for others, while for another person, it becomes a reason to give up and put on the “Victim” t-shirt for the rest of their lives? And really, is the second option less EFFORT? I don’t think so. And somehow, I think it has something to do with being “at choice.”

But today, I want to think about/feel out how it is when something comes easy, and give myself permission to value THAT.  The zen. The flow. The universe settling down from all this stomping and shouting and just… harmonizing.  I’ve had so many of these moments in my life. There will be a project collaboration, or a new friend, or a family day and it is all good.  It’s not effortless, but the work feels meaningful.  No negotiation required, guards down, it just … happens. I want to understand the essential essence of the difference between an experience that feels like trauma and one that feels like an “opportunity for growth.” And I suspect that essence has nothing to do with the external circumstances; it’s inside. It’s me.

To illustrate my point: a friend of mine offered me some help that I very much wanted, yet there I was tense and resistant to the gift. I was making it more effort for each of us. He (is very wise, and) said: “This would go much easier if you would do two simple things for me:  just breathe, and be present right here in this moment.” Well duh. Everything is easier if you “just” do that.  A tense board meeting, the inexplicable experience of giving birth, having glorious sex, playing joyfully in the sandbox with your kid and his friends… isn’t each of these more — more easy , more authentic, more noteworthy, and less extra effort — if you just breathe and be present? And does KNOWING that make DOING the breathing and being present any easier?

I know I’m not making a rocket science discovery here. I’m at least pleased that the meditation, self help books, and spiritual workshops I’ve been steeping myself in (I refuse to say I’ve been ‘working’ on these things) have permeated into my thought process. But here’s the part of all this hippy zen stuff I want to understand better…

I “get” the surrender and accept thing, the letting everything be as it is, the teacher showing up when the student is ready. Really, I understand that. But I was raised HERE, and it is a challenge for me to distinguish that from apathy, or giving up.  I don’t know how to get “credit” for taking the right and therefore easier path.

But I promised my blog posts would stay under 1000 words, so that will have to be a contemplation for another day.

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