Sometimes a book puts down such deep roots in one’s soul that it seems always present, providing categories whereby one views the world, even when one has not read it in many years. Such a book for me has been The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch, that renegade sociologist who should have been or would have been Christian, had he only lived a little longer — for he was moving toward the Lord.
One of the chapters of that book is an analysis of contemporary feminism as being not at all revolutionary but a capitulation to the narcissism of what Lasch called late-stage capitalism. We derive our sense of worth, Lasch pointed out, not from our relationship to God, nor from those human loves and human works that build a family, but from the flash of self-importance, of being seen, reflected upon us by our being visible in a bureaucratic labor force. Feminists, of course, were outraged. When Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of happy memory, herself en route to Jesus, traveled to New York to visit Lasch and give a lecture, the members of her Women’s Studies program at Emory took the occasion of her absence to remove her from her chairmanship. That, despite the fact that Professor Fox-Genovese had founded the program, the first such in the nation.
Then, years later — after Lasch’s death and Fox-Genovese’s conversion to the Catholic Faith — I read a book that had long been on my must-do list: Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. There I was stunned to learn that, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, sloth was “the sin against the Sabbath,” because it was a violation of the spirit of rest and celebration that the Sabbath is meant to foster. Sloth, as I should have understood from my training in medieval literature long before, is not physical inactivity but spiritual torpor, sluggishness of soul, an inability to take joy in those things that should bring us joy. As such it is not only compatible with what Pieper called a culture of “total work”; It is that culture’s most characteristic vice.
It is also not surprising that the same viruses that infect the culture of narcissism infect the culture of total work. For there is something self-effacing, or rather self-forgetting, about the true feast. When we celebrate, we rejoice precisely in what comes to us as a gift, what is not wholly in our power to provide for ourselves; and that is even the case when reapers clear the fields and lie back in the shade with bread and wine and song, or when fishermen haul their nets ashore and drink deep at the public house. A feast without the divine, says Pieper, is quite simply unknown; and for that same reason, it is impossible to manufacture joy from the raw materials supplied by the self alone, and impossible to manufacture love.
And yet it is taken for granted, even by Christians, that all young people, both men and women, must “do” something, by which they mean must find salaried (and preferably prestigious) employment. In my observation, it is not simply, or even principally, for money. It is considered necessary for the building of a “real” life with a real self. That suggests instead a real spiritual poverty, a restlessness, an inability to take delight in those often small and lovely things that should bring us joy.
My college, though we are proud of our Catholic heritage and have worked to establish a genuine difference between ourselves and our secular counterparts, nevertheless showcases on its Web page only those alumni who have (note the ugly and revealing figure of speech) made something of themselves. So we have judges, professors, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. We do not have carpenters, masons, plumbers, receptionists, maids, or electricians, and we certainly do not have housewives.
I recall a remarkable article in the self-advertising magazine of my mater ferox, the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Usually I turn straight to the back of the magazine, to make sure that none of my classmates has died, and then I file it in the appropriate place, in the receptacle under the kitchen sink. This time I read one of the articles, featuring an alumna — a careerist of some sort I have forgotten — who had a small child and worked from home. The child was instructed to approach her during one half hour in the afternoon, set aside, one supposes, for the development of his humanity. Otherwise, she had to be left alone. This practice, she said chirpily, taught the little boy that mommy’s work was important. Alas, what it really taught him was that he himself — or perhaps, the human being generally — was not important.
But what is this life for, after all? The poet John Keats, of dubious Christian faith, called it the “vale of soul-making,” and in that regard he was closer to the truth than we are. It is not the vale of body building, or of career crafting, or of job enhancement, but of soul making, and if we take the lessons of our faith seriously, that can only be by humility, opening ourselves up to the beauty and wonder of the world, and deigning to love those most beautiful and wondrous creatures, our fellow human beings. Certainly we can do that in our work — I am not saying that any arena of human endeavor is shut off from grace. But let us beware. The tendrils of work for work’s sake and of self for self’s sake have long been maddeningly entwined. If we heed the wisdom of Pieper and Lasch, we will labor most fruitfully when we learn the blessedness of leisure, and we will become most ourselves, most magnanimous, when we learn again the littleness of the child.
Whether this lesson is more easily learned by women than by men, I do not know. I look at my beloved wife, who has borne out the wisdom of Chesterton in our family life, choosing — rather than teaching the rule of three to a room full of strangers’ children — to bring the universe to her own. What is she to us? What is she not? Teacher, chef, decorator, nurse — all those things, but mainly the one person most responsible for showing our children that they are loved: that they, whom we have not made for ourselves, are our deepest joys, not because they will be great in the world, but just because they are who they are. She calls herself, half in jest, a woman of leisure. Yes, exactly.