How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
You were considerably more productive between July and September of last year than you were between October and December. Well, not you exactly, but us. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Gross Domestic Product of U.S. workers increased by 3.5% during the 3rd quarter of 2016, but slowed to 2.1% in the last quarter. Why does this matter?
Because our economic system is based on a curious proposition: that we can forever keep producing more microwaves or battleships or insurance policies or computer programs or couches per year with the same number of person-hours, or better yet, with fewer hours. Increased worker productivity is a central goal of capitalism, because it means greater profits and lower costs. The theory has been working for a long time now, even though, in real terms, we are making less money per hour of work, while producing more stuff than we did forty years ago. Mostly, that’s because technology keeps getting better. But it’s also because we work longer hours, and we take less time off, than we did forty years ago. That email from your boss at 9:00PM or that Sunday afternoon text about your Monday morning meeting are no longer anomalies. Work and life have grown increasingly out of balance for the simple reason that we believe that working is more important than living. We have forgotten that the reason we work is to live, we are not supposed to be living to work.
I met a woman the other day who works at a fast food restaurant. Seven years ago, she was homeless, addicted and lost. But she found one of those programs that is so out of fashion these days, and they helped her get sober and get a job. It’s not a great job: she starts her workday at 5:00 AM, makes the minimum wage, and she works really hard. There’s no extra money, and her idea of a great day is sitting at home, curled up on the couch, reading. But she’s happy, she says, because she’s living now. Back in her addict days, every penny she had funded her addiction and now it all goes to bills. But she is in control of her life, she has time to see the sun come up through the restaurant windows. She greets the early customers still blinking back the night through the steam from their Styrofoam coffee cups. She encourages her co-workers to do their jobs with pride, because people need the food they are preparing. It is their gift to a sleepy world.
I think if I were to build a cathedral, I would make a stained glass window of her, in her grease-stained uniform, her name badge slightly askew. She’d have a halo, and she’d have a book tucked under her arm. She’s as close to saintliness as a human can get. She loves the world, she loves other people and she loves life. She has balance.
I don’t know how much she contributes to the GDP. I’m not sure if she makes 2.1% more biscuits than she did last September. But I doubt she thinks about that. She thinks about this biscuit, this morning of this day. I want to be like her.