A peach is nice, but if you keep it off the tree too long it starts to rot. The same might be said about work.
I once met a woman in my bicycle club on a training ride in Bucks County a few years ago. I was just out of college and trying to figure out what to do with my life. As we rode along, she told me "be grateful for your time," or something to that extent. She had gone straight from college to med school to residency to full time work only to realize she never really had any significant time off from working, and probably never would now that she had reached this stage in her career as a doctor. Once the ball gets rolling, its hard to stop.
After four years at the same company, I decided I would try not working for a change. I didn't want to be like that doctor, having no time to live her life, do the things she always wanted to do. I saved up my money, and resigned in July. I haven't worked since.
It was nice at first. I found plenty of things to do. I worked on my bikes. I remodeled a schoolbus into an RV as a project in eco-sustainability (http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/articles/17554/news). I traveled. I did whatever I wanted, and went where I wanted. At one point I decided to try to live a quasi-monastic life, getting rid of most of my possessions. I was happy as a clam, and free.
Or so I thought. As time went out, and volunteering and writing did not fill enough hours of the day, I began to appreciate more and more the daily rhythm of working, the sense of meaning and purpose it provided, and realized how absent these things were from my own life. St. Benedict warns against the kind of monks (Sarabaites) who are “approved by no rule, experience being their teacher [...] Their law is the satisfaction of their desires. For whatever they think good or choice, this they call holy; and what they do not wish, this they consider unlawful.” Laziness was one of the greatest temptations of early monks, and St. Benedict saw how dangerous such lack of discipline can be. I also saw how it was creeping into my own life, in subtle and not so subtle ways. I grew listless. I did not want to do even that which I needed to get done, daily responsibilities.
I figured all this was justified, since I had essentially "bought" my time, and it was mine to spend however I wanted. This was true, I suppose. My father has a photograph of a wild river in Yosemite or some place like that with the words written: 'Nothing is ours, but time.' Since retiring, my dad appreciates every day. He has plenty to keep him busy, even if they are small things, like running errands, painting the house, etc. He can do this after working for thirty years at the same school. Essentially, he earned it.
But I have not put my time in in this way. I am like a spoiled child that wants what he wants without having to earn it. St. Paul said, "he who does not work, let him not eat." There are various Zen stories that follow the same line. There is something dignified about work, and it is especially important to men. Men glean so much of their sense of self from working, so much so that when that is absent there is a disturbing hole that is more than just a proliferation of free time. A lack of work contributes to a lack of meaning, and a subtle feeling of humiliation.
I once read a quote in Andrew Solomon's book, An Atlas of Depression, something to the effect of work being a distraction from the meaninglessness of our own lives, and for that reason alone it is valuable for preventing depression, if for nothing else. I am beginning to think, if work only kept us from dwelling on this black pit of meaninglessness and our own isolated existence as human beings, then it is a good thing, even if it is merely a distraction, a curtain that veils the unsightly. Some people identify too much of their sense of self with their work, so that when that work gets taken away, they have no idea who they are or what to do. Some people, like myself, I think, do not identify enough with their work.
I realize in writing this that many people do not have the luxury of not working. Bills don't stop when you want to rest, and most people would not really do well with so much free time on their hands. I can't say I am much different, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to perform this little social experiment. If anything, taking time to not work has taught me the value of work, how meaningful it is to me as a man, and how it contributes to my growth, not to mention my financial security.
This has been a year of experiments, doing things I have always wanted to do, and finding what works and what doesn't. Building my own home has always been a dream, and I have accomplished that, even though living in the RV did not work out. Retiring early has also been another fantasy, and one that I can say I have now etertained, albeit for a limited time. Because of this I will never say, "I wonder what it would be like to..." to those things which are important to me. If it were only to teach me this lesson alone, so I can look back with no regrets at having not done something I always wanted to do, I think it was still worth it. I hope to find meaningful work doing something I love, and I will not stop putting myself in a position to find that. In the meantime, doing something I don't love for the sake of working is not looking like such a bad thing. I have an interview on Tuesday for a case management job for the aging in Philadelphia. Wish me luck. It's time to take this rotten freedom fruit and make a delicious smoothie with it.