There are values within American culture that are often lined up side to side with positive moral values, but that contain no moral component whatsoever. Among these values are what, for the sake of this essay, will be referred to as “industry” and “competence.”
Industry is what comes about when one is industrious; that is, when one works hard. We all tend to admire people who are hard-working. On the other hand, we are often disdainful of those who do not work, even labeling them “lazy” or “losers,” before we bother to sufficiently examine the facts. A disabled person, for example, may actually be unable to perform work for reasons that are entirely physical or psychological in nature. Yet we may write such a person off as “freeloader” who feels that he or she is “entitled.” This exemplifies what sociologist Erving Goffman calls social stigma — the instance in which a common preconception about a group as a whole spoils the perception of a person as an individual.
The idea that a person with a severe physical disability might think of themselves as “entitled” flies in the face of the facts. Enormous tax breaks are granted to the super-rich. But disabled people who make a modicum of $900/mo., while condemned by the wealthy for “not paying taxes,” barely have enough money to get by even without having to add taxation to their hardships.
On the other hand, a person who works very hard will often be acclaimed for their industry. The hard-working person might themselves look down upon those who seem unproductive, using words like “lazy” or “crazy” to explain their lack of tangible progress. But does it ever occur to any of these people that, while hard work is certainly in line with the Puritan work ethic, it bears absolutely no relationship whatsoever to moral stature?
I was on the streets for many years. I observed the hustlers and con artists in my midst. Many of them would spend at least eight hours a day doing nothing but accosting one person after another, asking them “can you spare a dollar?” repeatedly. At the end of their day, their dollars would be lined up. Law of averages! Now — this may be morally reprehensible, but one cannot claim such work is easy. Hustlers work hard at what they do.
The con artists operated in similarly high gear:
“Excuse me, my car just broke down and I need two dollars for the bus to get back to Daly City. Oh thank you, sir! Thank you.” (Brief pause.) “Excuse me, my car just broke down and I need two dollars for the bus to get back to Daly City. Oh thank you, sir! Thank you.” (Brief pause.) “Excuse me, my car just broke down and I . . .”
That’s only to cite the low end of the socio-economic spectrum. On the high end, I know a guy who was making in excess of $150,000 a year prior to his retirement. He wound up getting both a huge retirement and a rather hefty inheritance. One would think he’d have relaxed after that, and spent some time with his family. But what did he do instead?
He began to work even harder, accepting odd jobs and gigs in all kinds of places, boasting that he was making much more money after retirement than he was before. But anyone close to him could tell that the main reason he was doing this was to get out of the house, since the idea of having to spend more time with his poor wife was of no appeal. That, and the sheer force of workaholism, wherein his entire identity was wrapped up in how hard he worked, often at the expense of common courtesy to family and friends.
A hard-working woman in a similar bracket kicked her own mother out of the house at a time when she felt her aging, struggling mother was nothing but an invasion of her space. Her mother was of course heartbroken and devastated. But did her daughter bat an eye? Not in the least. She kept on chasing the bucks, oblivious to the moral depravity of her actions.
In neither of those cases could “industry” be logically equated with a high moral standard. Yet our society, in so many ways beyond the mere monetary factor, routinely rewards industry and punishes what appears to be “laxity.” But things are not always what they seem. What may seem “sloth” to the hard-at-work is often nothing other than the lack of workaholism. People become addicted to work. As with any other addiction, this affects those close to them.
I’m all in favor of going out and getting a job, especially if one is prone to sitting on one’s rump doing nothing and getting nowhere in life. But the way that we exalt the value of industry in our society is, to my view, missing the mark. Many people work hard to feed their families, save up for hard times, and contribute to worthy causes. But hard work in and of itself is not a moral value. Criminals work hard, and hard-working people often become criminals in the process.
The same goes for the value known as competence. I am a person who has been declared “legally incompetent” by the United States government. I am not only seen to be incompetent, but — (try not to laugh) — legally incompetent. The reason for this verdict is a combination of two mental health diagnoses, usually labeled “bipolar one hypomanic disorder,” and “severe adult attention deficit hyperactive disorder.” In other words, I’m a space case. No one wants to hire me, because I have a hard time concentrating on anything outside of my own head.
This is a legitimate mental health disability. It rears its head every time I am required to focus on an external task that is time-dependent. The greater the time pressure, the less likely I will turn the work on time. It can be maddening. Because of it, I have lost many jobs. But is it a moral failing? Not at all. Not even the bosses who fired me saw it as anything other than a condition. It’s not even a moral choice.
Fortunately, there are a couple of things I do very well. I am a decent piano player, and I also type very fast, in the area of 120 wpm. If I’m writing an article like this, or a song, or a musical play, I am able to organize my thoughts with a fair degree of clarity. But these are my thoughts — not the thoughts transmitted to me by an external employer. It’s pretty easy for me to channel my own thinking in ways that are constructive, as long as I do it on my own time, and in my own space. But try to get me to keep track of items in a workplace, or to function normally in the face of an pressing deadline, and you might not even think I’m the same guy.
Another thing I am incapable of doing is to juggle two or more tasks at once. Everything I do well involves only one task, and to do it well, I need to be alone. But I have met people who can multi-task effectively in the presence of multiple human influences. These are the valuable workers of this world. And yet, at least one of these highly competent people has left his poor, ailing wife alone at home all alone; and another one kicked her own mother out of her house.
Like industry, competence contains no moral component whatsoever. Great thieves and even serial killers are competent. So why do we place such a high value on competence and industry? Why do we not place a similarly high value on unconditional, self-sacrificial love?
In my opinion, it all boils down to classism. A competent person who works very hard naturally tends to make more money than one who is incompetent or who can’t seem to find work. Water seeks its own level, and so someone making $150,000 or more usually finds themselves in the company of the upper class. And there is where all the self-congratulating and mutual admiration reeks of what Jesus called the “deceitfulness of riches”.
In our society, if someone is steadily making more and more money, they often hear the words: “You must be doing something right!” Then, convinced that they are indeed “doing something right,” they naturally make no effort to change their modus operandi, even if, in fact, they are doing something wrong. Conversely, they may find themselves befuddled by the lack of productivity of some who are in the lower social classes, and shake their heads in incredulity. “They’ve got it all wrong!” they are quick to declare, when in reality, in God’s eyes, many of those poor, self-sacrificing people are the ones who are doing things right.
If there is a God in heaven – which I fully believe there is — can you imagine the sorrow He feels when He looks down upon those whom His Providence has blessed, and beholds their utter refusal to return the blessing to those of their own families? A mother brings a woman into the world, cares for her, nurtures her, packs her lunch, holds her hand on the way to school, tucks her into bed at night, and sends her proudly to the finest schools. Why cannot that person take care of her mother in her old age? Why can she not return the favor?
“Through sickness and through health, till death do us part,” is the wedding vow shared by a man and his bride. Forty years down the road, where is the healthy, vigorous man when the bride is lonely and sick? Where is the man who made her that promise? Chasing the dollar, at world record pace, running on empty — to nowhere. How I pity the one who runs after money! Who will be there to cheer his victory, when he crosses the finish line of the Marathon Race to Hell?
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