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Rolheiser: Workaholism and greed

31 October 2022

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

There’s only one addiction for which we are praised – overworking. With every other addiction, concerned others are looking to put you into a clinic or into a recovery program, but if your addiction is work, generally it’s seen as virtue. I know of what I speak. I’m a “recovering workaholic”, and not exactly in full sobriety at the moment. However, I recognize the disease. Here are its symptoms: we are forever short of time with too many things to do. Our days are too short.

In his autobiography, movie critic Roger Ebert, writes, “I have filled my life so completely that many days there is no time to think about the fact that I am living it.” Many of us know the feeling. Why do we do this to ourselves?

The answer may surprise us. When our lives are so pressured that we never have time to savor the fact that we are alive and living it, when we are always short of time with too many things to do, we are suffering from greed, one of the classical deadly sins.

We have a simplistic notion of greed. When we think of a greedy person, we imagine someone who is stingy, selfish, rich in money and material things, hoarding those riches for himself. Few of us fit that category. Greed, in us, has infinitely subtler forms. What most of us who are generous, unselfish, and not rich in money or property suffer from is greed for experience, greed for life itself, and (if this doesn’t sound too heretical) greed even in our generosity. We are greedy to do more (even good things) in our lives than time allows.

Where do we see this? We see it in ourselves whenever there is never enough time to do what we (seemingly) need to do. There is always pressure that we should be doing more. When we think that somehow God made a mistake with time and didn’t allot us enough of it, we are suffering from greed. Henri Nouwen once described it this way: “Our lives often seem like over packed suitcases bursting at the seams. In fact, we are almost always aware of being behind schedule. There is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, unrealized proposals. There is always something else we should have remembered, done, or said. There are always people we did not speak to, write to, or visit.”

But … God didn’t make a mistake in giving us time. God gave us enough time to do what is asked of us, even in generosity and selflessness. The issue is on our side and the problem is greed. We want to do more in life than life itself allows.

Moreover, in most cases, this is easy to rationalize. If we are burning out while serving others, we can easily look at our over-extension, tiredness, and our haunting sense that we are not doing enough and see it as virtue, as a form of martyrdom, as selflessness, as giving our lives away for others. Partly this is true, there are times when love, circumstance, or a particular season in our lives can demand that we hand it all over to the point of radical self-abnegation; even Jesus was overwhelmed at times and tried to sneak away for some solitude. However, that is not always the case. What a mother needs to do for an infant or a young needy child is quite different from what she needs to do when that child is grown and is an adult. What is virtue in one situation can become greed in another situation.

Being too busy generally begins as a virtue, and then often turns into vice – subtle greed. What was once necessary to serve others now begins more to serve our own self-image and reputation. As well, it functions as a convenient escape. When we are consumed with doing work for others, we don’t have to face our own inner demons nor the demons that need to be faced in our marriages, vocations, and relationships. We are simply too busy; but this is an addiction, the same as all other addictions, except that this particular addiction is seen as a virtue for which we are praised.

This is one reason why God gave us the Sabbath, ordering us to stop working one day each week. Sadly, we are losing the very notion of Sabbath. We have turned a commandment into a light lifestyle suggestion. This can be a good thing to do, if you can manage it! However, as Wayne Mueller writes in his very challenging book on the Sabbath: “If we forget to rest, we will work too hard and forget our more tender mercies, forget those we love, forget our children and our natural wonder. … So God gave us the commandment to observe then Sabbath – ‘Remember to rest.’ This is not a lifestyle suggestion, but a commandment, as important as not stealing, nor murdering, not lying.”

Overwork is not a virtue.

-Rev. Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I. is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Before taking his current position he taught for many years at Newman Theological College.

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