There are dangers in overwork, not matter how good the work and no matter how noble the motivation for doing it. Spiritual guides, beginning with Jesus, have always warned of the dangers of becoming too taken-up in our work. Many are the spouses in a marriage, many are the children in a family, many are the friends, and many are churches, who wish that someone they love and need more attention from was less busy.
But it is hard not to be over-busy and consumed by work, particularly during our generative years when the duties of raising children, paying mortgages, and running our churches and civic organizations falls more squarely on our shoulders. If you are a sensitive person you will wrestle constantly with the pressure to not surrender yourself to too many demands. As Henri Nouwen once described this, our lives often seem like over-packed suitcases with too much in them. There is always one more task to do, one more phone call to make, one more person to see, one more bill to pay, one more thing to check on the internet, one more leaky faucet to tend to, one more demand from some church or social agency, and one more item that needs to be picked up from the store. The demands never end and we are always conscious of some task that we still need to do. Our days are too short for all that needs to be done.
And so we give ourselves over to our work. It begins in good will and innocence but it invariably transmutes into something else. Initially we give ourselves over to all these demands because this is what is asked of us, but as more and more time goes by that commitment becomes less and less altruistic and more self-serving.
First off, though we are generally blind to this, our work soon becomes an escape. We remain busy and preoccupied enough that we have an inbuilt excuse and rationalization so as not to have to deal with relationships be that within our own families, our churches, or with God. Being weighed-down constantly with work and duty is a burden but it is also the ultimate protection. We do not get to smell the flowers, but we do not have to deal either with the deeper things that lurk under the surface of our lives. We can avoid the unresolved issues in our relationships and our psyches. We have the perfect excuse! We are too busy.
Generally too our society supports us in this escapism. With virtually every other addiction, we are eventually sent off to a clinic, but if we are addicted to our work, we are generally admired for our disease and praised for our selflessness: If I drink too much, or eat too much, or become dependent on a drug, I am frowned upon and pitied; but if I overwork to the point of neglecting huge and important imperatives in my life, they say this of me: “Isn’t he wonderful! He’s so dedicated!” Workaholism is the one addiction for which we get praised.
Beyond providing us with an unhealthy escape from some important issues with which we need to be dealing, overwork brings with it a second major danger: The more we over-invest in our work the greater the danger of taking too much of our meaning from our work rather than from our relationships. As we become more and more immersed in our work, to the detriment of our relationships, we will naturally begin too to draw more and more of our meaning and value from our work and, as numerous spiritual writers have pointed out, the dangers in this are many, not least among these is the danger that we will eventually find it harder and harder to find meaning in anything outside of our work. Old habits are hard to break. If we spend years drawing our identity from working hard and being loved for being anything from a professional athlete to a dedicated mum, it will not be easy to simply shift gears and draw our meaning from something else.
Classical spiritual writers are unanimous in warning about the danger of overwork and of becoming over-preoccupied with our work. This is in fact what Jesus warns Martha about in the famous passage in scripture where she, consumed with the very necessary work of preparing a meal, complains to Jesus that her sister, Mary, is not carrying her share of the load. In a rather surprising response, Jesus, instead of chastising Mary for her idleness and praising Martha for her dedication, tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, that, at this moment and in this circumstance, Mary’s idleness trumps Martha’s busyness. Why? Because sometimes there are more important things in life than work, even the noble and necessary work of tending to hospitality and preparing a meal for others.
Idleness may well be the devil’s workshop, but busyness is not always a virtue.