The first time I really focused on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, I was about eight years old. The rabbi explained that the two of them spent all their days sitting under a tree while ripe mangos and other juicy fruits just fell into their laps. All day, all manner of delicious fruits and other foods just came their way with no effort on their part. They had it made in the shade, so to speak.
Then, they committed the Great Transgression (the exact nature of this was never made clear to me) and all bets were off. God withdrew this good deal and, forever after, Adam and Eve and all their descendants (including me) would have to toil for their food and shelter. In other words, they would have to work. Damn! I can remember my already lazy-ass eight-year-old self thinking, “Why did they have to screw up such a good thing?” and “Now what do I do?”
There are currently over 20 million Americans out of work and I am one of them. Maybe you are, too. The horrors of the pandemic, the death and disruption, have had multiple effects in the lives of so many, like the proverbial stone thrown into a pond — and the very smallest of the ripples would be me out of a job. To begin with, I have to admit, there was that Snow Day feeling: giving yourself up to a larger force over which you have no control. Not so bad. I am still that lazy-ass kid who digs his leisure.
I hasten to add that, unlike many people, I am neither food- nor shelter-insecure. I am not going to starve and my house is my own. I have a big orange every morning, even though it costs a whole dollar at Stop & Shop, and my coffee remains a premium blend. I have found plenty to do and have never been bored. I also confess to white privilege: joblessness and disenfranchisement have never been constant threats in my life.
Still, I am out of work. Ultimately, life without work assumes a strange dimension. We are defined, and we define ourselves, largely by what we do (and where we are from and perhaps whom we love). The first question you ask somebody you have just met: where are you from? Next: what do you do? So, who am I if I am not working? A chunk of my identity has gone missing. I like to think of myself as an ambassador to the natural world of the Outer Cape, especially the ocean. Whether your collar is blue or white, work gives you a sense of self-worth and individuality.
But there is more: work provides the opportunity to interact with others. You really don’t know someone until you have worked with him or her. In a restaurant, the busboys, hostesses, waiters, bartenders, and cooks all depend on each other. On a whale watch, the same is true for the captains, mates, naturalists, and galley workers. It’s probably the same where you work. If someone drops the ball, it affects everyone. You soon learn who talks the talk and who walks the walk.
I have never been one of those who can swing in a hammock all day or laze on a beach towel for hours: it is just not my style. I would rather work. Work provides challenges. Problem solving is required. Work lets you know every day who you are and what you can do, or how you can do it better. As Stanley Kunitz observed: “It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self.”
You don’t get that on a beach towel. And Adam and Eve were probably better off in the end.