Taped to the wall in front of my desk is a list of rules written by artist Corita Kent for an art class she taught in 1967. They could be considered rules for creativity, for work, for life; to me they’re for all three. I guess I figured that as an underemployed work-at-home novelist/essayist, I’d do well to impose my own rules, so I posted the list when I set up my writer’s workstation last summer.
Since then my gaze has settled upon it so often that some of the phrases have embedded in my memory. If I close my eyes I can picture one in particular:
“Rule 7: The only rule is work.”
I’m obliged to picture it at present rather than just read it off the page because I’m not at my desk working. It’s a workday—Monday—working hours, 3:45pm—but I’m miles away, perched 2,000 feet up atop Rattlesnake Ledge.
I’m breaking Rule 7: I’m not working.
I was obedient all morning, but by lunchtime I couldn’t resist the siren song of the sun in all its mid-spring glory. It called me off course, and here I am upon the rocks.
It’s beautiful on this mountaintop, but to be honest my enjoyment is tainted by a sense of guilt. It’s a familiar feeling: any time I step away from my desk during the standard workweek I get the urge to justify how I use each hour. As a result I don’t step away all that much. I’m usually tapping at my laptop by 8 a.m. Monday through Friday and I’m back at it after lunch, too.
I guess I’m ashamed of the fact that no one is forcing me to put in a solid forty hours the way most of my fellow adults do… so I tend to force it upon myself.
This work ethic has served me fine through Seattle’s gray winter, but it faltered today when that mid-spring sun began to shine. Before I could talk myself out of it, I was lacing up my hiking boots and heading for the hills.
And here I am.
Breaking Rule 7, and therefore feeling a little guilty.
At this point I imagine my rule-writer would grab my shoulders and give me a good shake, imploring me to wake up and smell the context.
Rule 7 isn’t really the only rule! Kent would cry. And yes, Rule 5 instructs us to “be self-disciplined.” But Rule 9 reminds us to balance that: “Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.”
I’m a workplace of one with no immediate obligations to colleagues or customers. If I play hooky for an afternoon, no one suffers—maybe I’ll fall behind on a few pages of editing, that’s all. So if I’m distracted by that sunshine anyway as I sit at my desk, what good am I doing? Why should we always prioritize the “work” rule over the “happy” one?
And anyway, I imagine Kent adding, don’t you realize how arbitrary the rules are? Forget the list on the wall. Hell, forget the American Protestant capitalist obsession with work altogether. Figure out for yourself where value lies.
There is undoubtedly value in work. But not work for work’s sake—not forty hours per week, just because forty sounds like a good number. Work has value when it has a purpose. Even the infamous Rule 7 acknowledges this in the full version: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.”
In other words, we work in order to learn about the world and ourselves in it. In order to contribute to the world and ourselves in it.
Not in order to validate our worth by racking up bragging rights about how much time we spend at a desk each day.
Tim Kreider writes about this in his excellent essay “The ‘Busy’ Trap”:
Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. […] Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy […. But] if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.
I have to agree that in the grand scheme of things, whether I’m productive with my time doesn’t matter. If I type away at my laptop a certain number of hours—doesn’t matter. If I get sweaty climbing up ledges—doesn’t matter either. I’m just another mortal who’ll be gone a century from now, outlived by libraries and mountains who are only slightly less ephemeral than I.
It’s not that I think life is meaningless. I just think its meaning is too fleeting to be worth all the stress we invest in arbitrary conventions like forty-hour workweeks.
Here’s what matters, in my mind: that we take care of ourselves and each other, and that we appreciate the time we have by experiencing all the beauty out there in the world. That’s what gives our lives meaning.
When you do your job—when I work on my writing—are we contributing to our own health? Are we helping others live well? Are we savoring our own humanity?
Good. Any work beyond that is probably just for show, and maybe counterproductive.
It’s a Monday afternoon and I’m not working. So? This moment up here on this ledge is meaningful to me, and I intend to take this sense of well-being and share it with my loved ones.
Hell, I’m even bringing all these reflections back into my work after all by writing this down. What do you know. The guilt is draining away. Per the rest of Rule 7, I’m catching on to things.
If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.
Essays, Letters and Miscellanies