Manual Labor and Spiritual Rest
The 1999 cult classic film Office Space tells the story of an overworked office lackey, Peter, who hates his job. One day, after his hypnotist and couples’ therapist dies of a heart attack before releasing him from a restful trance, Peter has an epiphany: He’d rather be doing nothing at all. While comical, the film raises interesting questions about work, rest, and laziness, to which the Christian ascetic tradition has much to say. Rather than a burden, manual labor can be a means to spiritual rest.
Peter confesses to his neighbor, Lawrence, that whenever his high school guidance counselor had asked, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?”—the goal being to encourage him to pursue that as a career—his response would have been, “Nothing.” Blue-collar Lawrence then crassly responds, “You don’t need a million dollars to do nothing, man. Take a look at my cousin. He’s broke, don’t do $#!+.”
After his epiphany, Peter embraces his neighbor’s sage advice. As he tells Joanna, his newfound love-interest, “I don’t like my job, and I don’t think I’m gonna go anymore.” She responds, “You’re just not gonna go? Won’t you get fired?” “I don’t know,” he says, “I’m just not gonna go.”
The film becomes a sort of apathetic adventure, until Peter learns that his friends, the (unfortunately named) Michael Bolton and Samir, are going to be fired while he, despite his recent absenteeism, will be promoted. “This isn’t just about me and my dream of doing nothing,” he says to Michael. “It’s about all of us, together.” They then devise a plan to rip off their boss and ensure that none of them ever need to work again.
Suffice it to say—as is typical for this sort of comedy—the plan doesn’t work as they expected, but they manage to learn important life lessons by the end. In particular, the takeaway for Peter seems to be that the problem wasn’t that all work was bad, but only office work. His storyline ends with him and Lawrence working at a construction site, satisfied with a day of physical labor.
On the one hand, I’m inclined to push back against the basic thesis that physical labor is superior to other work. As the Russian Orthodox economist-turned-theologian Sergei Bulgakov once wrote, “Economy in its essence includes human labor in all its applications, from the worker to Kant, from the sower to the astronomer.” Work is work, whether done with the hands, technology, or the intellect.
On the other hand, it is right that different work affects us in different ways. One value of manual labor, according to the Christian ascetic tradition, is that it helps stave off “acedia,” a sort of spiritual listlessness, often simply translated as “sloth” or “idleness.” It would be more accurate to say, however, that acedia causes laziness than that it is laziness.
In his spiritual classic, the Institutes, St. John Cassian describes the person afflicted with acedia. He is especially concerned with how it affected hermits in the Egyptian desert, but no doubt the following will sound familiar to more than monks: “[H]e looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting….” Replace “brethren” with “co-workers,” “cell” with “cubicle,” and “sun” with “clock,” and this becomes a rather common occurrence around the typical office.
The result? Laziness: “[A]nd so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone.” Office Space perfectly encapsulates this progression in the character of Peter.
No doubt most readers have heard some variant of the maxim: “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” However, visiting friends and sleeping in seem a bit innocuous, don’t they? Indeed, most of us today would find extreme and bizarre the following injunction from the 1647 Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts:
It is ordered by this Court and Authoritie therof, that no person, Housholder or other shall spend his time idlely or unproffitably under pain of such punishment as the Court of Assistants or County Court shall think meet to inflict.
I suppose fear of punishment by the ruling authorities is one way to combat idleness, but it is a morally low form of motivation. Furthermore, it does not strike at acedia, the actual root of the problem.
So, what can we do in the absence of Puritan government? The key solution, according to Cassian, is manual labor. He writes,
The cause of all these ulcers, which spring from the root of idleness, [the Apostle Paul] heals like some well-skilled physician by a single salutary charge to work; as he knows that all the other bad symptoms, which spring as it were from the same clump, will at once disappear when the cause of the chief malady has been removed.
The “salutary charge” Cassian refers to comes from 2 Thessalonians:
[W]e hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread. (3:11-12)
In particular, however, Cassian understands the work in question to be manual labor, as is evident from the context. So the ending to Office Space actually seems quite apt after all.
While most people cannot excuse themselves every day at noon to go dig a ditch out behind their office, we all can find ways to incorporate manual labor into our daily spiritual practice (something I continually need to remember myself). In fact, all of us who are able-bodied have manual labor we can do. Take some inspiration from Brother Lawrence and practice the presence of God, contemplatively praying while washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning up after your kids, and so on.
The non-intellectual focus required to do manual work well has a paradoxically relaxing effect on the mind, just as rest from such labor brings a weary body relief. And prayer, whether working or at rest, restores the listless soul. Rather than an additional burden—as I am too prone to regard them—such chores are ascetic opportunities for spiritual relief.