Americans working from home full time for their first time are suddenly confronting a new dilemma. Our gainful employment now consists of sitting on couches in “Battlestar Galactica” footie pajamas and toggling between smartphones and laptops, from emails to Facebook to Twitter to Zoom calls, all while consuming Costco chicken potpies the size of wagon wheels.
That’s also what we do at home when we’re not working.
So how are we supposed to see the line between toil and rest? When the boundaries between home and office disappear? When signifiers like the kids being at school or spouses being at work no longer exist? When the weekend is just another day to not hit the bars or the gym, not go to the park or convene an extended family feast, how do we relax? How do we know when to say, “OK, it’s time to chill and get my mind off work and avoid strenuous household chores and relax with loved ones and change into my really awful ‘Rush 2112’ T-shirt that my wife has thrown away 11 times?”
Society has an answer that worked for thousands of years. It’s called a Sabbath, and it has historically been as much an integral part of life as working from home. Over the past few weeks, I’ve begun to wonder whether the tendency of most people, before the modern era, to be home most of the time, isn’t what made us embrace the Sabbath so strictly.
In colonial America, agriculture was the primary livelihood of 90 percent of workers, and most lived on the land they worked. That’s the way the vast majority of people have lived for the vast majority of human history. Kids have historically been home most of the time, too. The idea of the average non-rich child physically attending school five days a week for years on end is a very modern invention.
The labor on a farm is never done, but humans must sometimes be done with work. Increasingly, it seems like modern work, on a marketing campaign or in pursuit of a sale or designing a website or running a restaurant or repairing a car, is also never done, but we humans still need breaks. We’ve gotten terrible at taking them. And moving our entire work lives to our homes during this pandemic is showing many of us how bad we’ve become at resting.
When I was growing up in deeply Christian South Carolina in the 1970s, many families still refrained not just from work but even from tasks like mowing the lawn and doing home repairs on Sunday. Being Jewish, my religious education included a strictly work-free Sabbath, even if my secular home life did not.
But my dad only worked at the office. When he got home, he was off, cooking, reading, drinking, watching sports or playing cards with us, listening to music. He was like a relaxation savant. My mother did not bring work home, either.
Now everyone I know brings their work home. This month most of them brought it home entirely.
A day a week when work is off-limits feels crucial to enjoying life, to cultivate gratitude and serenity and love and patience. I’d really like to try taking 24 hours each week to slow down.
And while we’re embracing religious traditions to deal with our homebound coronavirus calamity, the mirror is suggesting a day of fasting, too.
After three weeks of laboring from home, the only thing that’s fitting worse than my work habits is my clothes.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.