In modern culture people are defined by their work. First question after one learns someone’s name is about their occupation. Even if a person is very successful and doesn’t need to work for a living anymore, we still want to know how he achieved that success. If someone simply inherited his fortune we feel unsatisfied in our inquiry, we want to know what that person has accomplished himself, what he wants to do with his own life, even if unsuccessfully.
Any job will do, we can learn to respect even managing a drug cartel, appreciating the skill while being totally aghast at methods and effects on society. A billionaire scion can afford to fail in many of his endeavors but we need to know that he tried at least something, and then we’ll use that something to define his nature from now on. Here we have a sign of controversy, though – he might not express himself through something we would call “work”. Drinking, gambling, and whoring might be his main and only interests but we don’t accept them as his nature, we need something else. Philanthropy would do but only if it’s seen as a serious effort, not signing checks away to charities he doesn’t even bother to read the names of. Painting or even taking photos would probably do, too, as long as it’s not an endless stream of selfies but a quest to discover beauty and inner meaning in the world.
That last one is not a job but a hobby, a leisure activity, and there are plenty of those to occupy even the penniless among us, but can we use hobbies to define our nature? Usually no, but there are voices that demand recognition of leisure as a legitimate if not a primary indication of our true character. There are arguments that, historically, work wasn’t that important until very recently.
There are two ways to approach this question. First, work is something we are forced to do to maintain ourselves. We don’t have to like it but we must be willing to make sacrifices and modern culture demands giving all we can in order to get maximum monetary rewards. In this sense work is not something we want to do with our lives but it’s something we are prepared to tolerate the most, so it must say something about our nature even if we pretend to hate it. We hate all the other things even more, so work is special.
The other view is that it’s only leisure that truly defines us and our nature but this view is very rare these days. Leisure is seen as luxury for the rich or idleness of the lazy. We all must have some rest so leisure is seen as a counterweight to work in our work/life balance. Note how it’s “work/life”, meaning that work and life are opposites, and so if you want to define life you shouldn’t be looking at work.
Modern asuric culture puts everything upside down and so it takes us a while to appreciate the notion that taking money for the work we don’t like is ugly. I wanted to compare it to prostitution but lots of prostitutes seem to enjoy what they are doing and consciously avoid unpleasant clients. There are people who half-jokingly refer to their work as selling their souls but there aren’t many who would see it as a serious problem that needs immediate attention. Everyone’s doing it so it must be okay, they conclude at the end of their tirades.
The ideal of work was probably best captured by Ayn Rand and in her vision it was driven by desire of self-fulfillment, not rewards. Her heroes were making the world a better place because they could and wanted to, not because they were paid to do so. I think everybody agrees that if they could do that and not worry about money it would have been perfect, unfortunately this kind of self-expression has become a rare luxury these days.
It’s heroes like Rand’s that gave birth to a term “workaholic” around the same time, in the middle of the 20th century. Industrialism finally reached the stage when people found freedom through work, even if we blame Nazis for daring to put this slogan on the entrance to Auschwitz. Somehow, if we survive in our cubicles and don’t die like Nazi prisoners it makes it alright and we should be thankful to our managers.
However, even if we do agree on Rand’s ideal we should remember that it’s shifted in time comparing to our present situation. In order to find such a field where we would be happy to apply ourselves without concern for rewards we need to be free from slavery of work for money first. Maybe not literally free but at least mentally free so that we have time to contemplate our true inspirations, and that’s where leisure comes back with force.
Etymology of the word itself shows that it once meant “opportunity to do something”, and it is also related to “license”, which means the same thing. That’s for the Latin origin of the term, if we turn to Greece then Greek word for leisure became skola in Latin and then school in English – a time for learning and preparation to do something with your life. It’s not how we usually understand leisure these days, but, perhaps, it’s only our ignorance speaking.
We just have to learn to do it right – the leisure, and then it will all fall into place because then we will see our real svabhava, as was discussed yesterday. Then our svadharma will become apparent, too, and then we can apply Kṛṣṇa’s injunction to do that and not worry about anything else, including failure.
The modern work that we have to do for a living, even if we come to like it, will not be seen as following Kṛṣṇa’s advice then. I mean when we apply for a job we want to “fill the position” – somebody else’s position, somebody’s else interest and requirement, not ours. It’s the corporation that needs a warm body in that chair, it would be us doing someone else’s work and fulfilling someone else’s aspirations. Succeeding in that would still be worse, from the spiritual progress point of view, then failing in our own leisure. I’ll quote that verse again (BG 18.47):
It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly. Duties prescribed according to one’s nature are never affected by sinful reactions.
Yeah, sure, we’ll get paid, but we’ll accrue sinful reactions, too, and problem with sins is that they deprive us of our taste for devotional service, which happens right away, long before manifestation of the unpleasant physical reactions. Therefore determining our svabhava and then our prescribed duties is very important for our spiritual progress, it’s not just a question of organizing a proper varṇāśrama. We can wait for varṇāśrama, we don’t really have a choice there, but we can’t put our spiritual progress on hold, we must do something about it now and that means figuring out our svabhava right away.
Next question is how to do this “leisure” thing right.