Monday, October 6, 2014

Work Ethic

I was working at a junior high school when I learned that the teachers there usually spend all week at school. One of the teachers I talked to came to school at 7:00am and left around 10:00 at night with Saturday and Sundays taken up by club activities like baseball and basketball. This is a typical schedule for Japanese teachers. In fact, this is typical for all of Japan.

During the latter half of the 1800’s, men in Japan often lived in the big cities, but had their wives and children living in the country. In old Japanese culture, the idea was that a father had an obligation to provide for his family, but because the rules were so clearly defined, there was latitude given. A man could have mistresses and other wives, but so long as he provided for them all, no one was allowed to complain.

In modern times, the Japanese father often lives in one of the major cities like Tokyo or Osaka, and commutes back home on the weekends. Part of this is cultural, but it is also part practical. The father’s family may have friends and relatives living in the smaller towns, but it is very difficult to find work in these smaller areas. So, in order to keep their family living comfortably within a strong community, it’s expected that the father will go out and work to keep their family happy.

You see, the Japanese work ethic is based upon obligation. A man is obligated to find work that provides for his family, even if he has to sacrifice that family to do it. A man is obligated to work twelve to fourteen hours a day because the company, or school, he works for asks him to.

Contrast that with the modern American work ethic, which involves the smallest amount of work with the greatest amount of benefits possible. At best, work is seen as a necessary evil. At worst, a waste of time that could have been spent having fun. One only needs to look at the service industry to see this philosophy. I was at an airport in San Francisco and wanted something to eat. I found a store and bought a candy bar. When I went up to the cashier, I found that she was chatting with someone. I put my candy down and waited for her to notice me. I looked at the covers of the magazines, noted how many American snacks contained massive amounts of sugar, and checked my phone. Finally, she picked up the candy and rang me up. Rather than telling me the total, she waited until I noticed the display. I paid and left. I’m not sure we exchanged more than two words. It seemed as if she was annoyed that I had come into the store, as if her responsibilities revolved around standing in front of the cash register until her shift was over.

The problem with these two philosophies is obvious. The Japanese philosophy of work puts the job above happiness. Japanese spend most of their time making money, but they rarely have time to spend it. On the other hand, Americans seem to want money, but are frustrated with the fact that they have to earn it. They put their own happiness over their job.

The middle way is the best. Not a balance, but a tension between Work and Play. One works hard and then rests. This has always been Christianity’s stance on work. Our God worked for six days creating the world and then sat down to enjoy it. The Christian, therefore, looks at Work as God-given, which is the only reason he needs to do his best at it. Work is what we do when God gives us something to do. Rest is what we do when God has given us nothing to do and this nothing is the hardest thing of all. Why not fill up your time with a part-time job, volunteering, and exercise? I have heard many people bemoan the fact that we have to sleep. This betrays a misunderstanding of rest. We need Sleep. We need Rest. We need to be reminded that we are not infinite. We are not omnipotent. We depend on God during times of rest not only to keep us safe, but to make sure that tomorrow will be manageable. We need not fear tomorrow because God is already there. He has already worked out tomorrow’s schedule and made the needed plans. Our job at night is to remember that.

Christians do not work to rest, nor do we rest to work. We work when it’s time to work and rest when it’s time to rest. And we work and we rest in the full knowledge that God has given us both to do.