The Desire to be Disabled and the Loss of Meaning


AcediaFor the life of me I cannot figure out why anyone would want to be disabled. I am among the accursed numbers of those unable to work, having been felled seven years ago after a nearly fifty-year fight with rheumatoid arthritis. (Thankfully, my law firm provided disability insurance, which keeps me off the government dole.) At the risk of singing my own praises, I have willingly submitted to being a guinea pig for a host of treatments, some of which have potentially deadly side effects (a duel at dawn with anyone who pities me). I did this because I needed not merely to feed my family, but because work, properly understood, offers a sense of purpose which keeps the Eternal Footman at bay. But the disease finally won the day. I am a lawyer by trade, and one little-known reality is that practicing law is highly demanding, not only mentally, but physically. I never really enjoyed my chosen occupation. Fighting for a living, especially trivial battles like petty arguments and personally insulting rhetoric, will tax the most patient of men. But the intellectual work was rewarding. I miss that.

These past few years, then, have not always been a joy. Yes, I have a wonderful life with my loving wife, devoted children (even though they call me “Old Guy”), and two fantastic granddaughters. But work is an essential need of man: Not only as a means of material production, but as a spiritual and psychological route towards acquiring virtue. Plus, while I don’t know whether there are statistics to back this up, from personal experience with others forced into early retirement, life expectancy drops when work comes to an end.

Why, then, are the Social Security Disability rolls growing at incomprehensible rates? We live in an extraordinarily safe world. Modern medicine does much more than keep us alive. It allows us to stay productive through illnesses that, just a few short years ago, would have quickly knocked us out of the game. As for the risks in life, my new car has eleven airbags and enough safety technology to ward offer nearly every danger. I’m safer in my car than nearly anywhere else. So what is it about work that has so many seeking an excuse to run away? Why would anyone want to be disabled?

Not long ago, being disabled was a kind of defeat, considered shameful even by those who were truly sick or injured. My dad and my father-in-law continued to work virtually until the day they died, so groomed were they in the ethic of toil as essential to a good life. Although bedridden, my dad continue to make telephone sales calls and my father-in-law still did the books for his small business. For them, there was a spiritual connection in work. It’s not that they believed work to be the sole end of life. They simply understood that there is no inalienable right to call it quits before the bell tolls.

But that steely-eyed view of work has greatly weakened in the present age. The causes are many. The nanny state, which rewards the lazy with the fruits of the laborers, is the most frequently cited reason for the increased welfare rolls (and SSD is welfare, even for the truly lame). Yet that alone seems too superficial. Instead, the root of the problem is more a shift in attitude away from the idea of self-sufficiency as the true essence of freedom and toward an ethic that sees freedom from life’s troubles as the summum bonum. As Patrick Deneen explains in Ethika Politika, there is today a vision of liberty as liberation from toil. Addressing “The Life of Julia,” a political advertisement for the reelection of Barack Obama in which Julia is coddled from birth to death by the glorious state, he writes:

It turns out that the real problem is liberty itself—especially a vision of liberty unaccompanied by concrete duties and responsibilities to one another, whose ideal is abstract relationships increasingly and ever-more comprehensively mediated through the State. Because for Julia ( and the denizen of the modern liberal state) our truest liberty is achieved when it protects us from any particular obligations, responsibilities, and duties—a condition best guaranteed by the abstract relationships mediated through the modern nation state.

But what has brought about the notion that life should be free from effort, and that we have some fundamental right to be relieved of all burdens, especially that of work? Although the lazy will always be with us, the phenomenon cannot be explained solely by a tendency towards laggardness. At a deeper level, there seems to be a modern lurch towards sloth. Or perhaps the better term is acedia, which monks refer to as “the noonday devil” who saps spiritual energy and with it, as R. J. Snell writes in his book Acedia and Its Discontents, sinks the sufferer into a world emptied of meaning. Work loses its point as the person beset by acedia seeks escape from the world of demands, uncertain outcomes, and oftentimes obscure purposes.

This exceedingly dangerous and deadly vice destroys even the desire to find meaning in one’s labors. So acute is acedia that the victim will search for anything that might distract him from the search for meaning. Life is hollowed out when it becomes impossible to even think about what can and should be done for oneself.

This, it seems to me, is at the heart of the growing desire to find an excuse to drop out of the labor force. When life has no meaning, it logically follows that effort becomes pointless while the search for distractions becomes preeminent. Drugs, chronic gambling, alcohol abuse, and a vast number of other moral maladies are often the wages of acedia.

I would also suggest that the desire for freedom from work arises, above all other things, from a loss of the religious sense, by which I do not mean theism per se, but a longing for transcendence, with all the pain and frustration associated with it. When we see life as far more than Schopenhauer’s gloomy “brief intermezzo of an ephemeral existence,” we are spurred on in the effort to make life meaningful, both for ourselves and for those we love. We then throw ourselves into life. We have meaning and thus an overwhelming need to work, whether at a job, at true leisure, or just in the mundane tasks of picking up after ourselves. A life filled with transcendence is open to all possibility and there is, therefore, always something one can do — even when one is in extremis.

The Catholic Church teaches that work is a participation in God’s ongoing creation. Our labors are therefore purposeful. The modern tendency to despise work is just one manifestation of a loss of the thickness of life as a sacred vocation. If Deneen is right, and the new definition of freedom is to be unshackled from work and responsibility, we can also expect the rootlessness that is the essence of the man who, as Kierkegaard wrote, does not even know he is in despair.

This might also explain the popularity of Bernie Sanders, especially among the young. Sanders appeals to the sort of alienation behind the desire to receive the largesse of the industrious without the concomitant obligation to invest in the productive world. No work and all play is the dreamy life which so many long for. This in turn suggests that to willingly sacrifice a productive life is to surrender one’s sense of purpose and to succumb to what Charles Taylor called “the terrible flatness of the everyday.” No hills, no valleys, just a featureless path through a land of distracted boredom.

The crisis of growing idleness will not, I fear, be remedied by reforming the welfare system. Aside from the fact that it will be politically impossible to slash government given the constituency that receives its sustenance from government (I’ll make book that current efforts to reform SSD will fail in the long run), there must be a reorientation away from acedia and from a vision of life that sees the highest good in being delivered from life’s struggles. Instead, we need to restore the understanding of life as vocation, and hence charged with meaning and purpose, and thereby open ourselves to a life in which there is always more to do. That also means that as long as he is able man must fulfill his earthly duty to work — even if he does nothing more than write for Ricochet as a hobby.

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  1. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck

    Evening Susan,

    If the Western philosophical life began with Socrates, then when he asks, “do our gods exist”, Socrates is asking a question unheard of to the Yanomamo. In our world, it is part of academic culture to question, almost everything, which leaves little room for unquestioned behavior or choices.  So when the existentialists as Frankl notes say that we should bear our meaningless existence bravely, this statement is entirely fixed in our modern Western culture. Even in modern times many folks of different faiths would find the assertion of meaningless of life and the lack of the sacred as false.  In our culture, introspection is a natural part of philosophy, however in daily life most human choices are not shaped by reflection.  Has our society changed its beliefs and values on marriage, work, male/female relationships based on rational or reflective thought.  I think not.  One of Haidt’s test questions on morality is, “if your pet dog died would you eat it, or give it to those people who do eat dogs?” If not, is it morally wrong to do so?  The question, to me is a visible example how our behavior is shaped in ways we cannot fully explain. So when Frankl suggests that human life seeks philosophical meaning, I think he describes modern academic culture. In the Fishtown factories and construction sites, I’ve worked on there were not discussions questioning whether life was meaningless.  Reflecting on what we know of tribes like the Yanomamo, Nuer, Dinka, existential questions do not exist.  However, members in these tribes know the history and ancestry of their family and many if not all the other tribal members.

    • #61
  2. TheRoyalFamily Member

    Randy Webster:

    You’ve clearly never worked with your hands. The most meaningful work I ever did I did as a carpenter. I’d be doing it still, but there’s no money in it.

    I suppose it depends on what sort of carpenter (or mason, or even plumber) you are. I imagine the creative sorts gain the sort of satisfaction the other creative types would. But someone that’s just putting together the brainchild of someone else, it is just a job, even if it’s a job they like. Kind of like the difference between a call center person and a “real” salesman.

    • #62
  3. Derek Simmons Member
    Derek Simmons

    Merina Smith: I will, however, take issue with Charles Taylor and the “terrible flatness of the everyday.” The maintenance of the everyday requires a lot of work, and it is worthy work that a wise person enjoys and appreciates.

    IMO the key to both your observation and Taylor’s is to emphasize what a “WISE” person enjoys and appreciates. Too few are wise in that way: hence “flatness.”

    • #63
  4. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    I question the premise of this article.

    I think people crave accomplishment and the rewards of earned success.  The effort is part of it, but working without a goal or a sense of accomplishment just feels like banging your head on the wall.  I have certainly had jobs where I worked exclusively for the paycheck.  Someone can be grateful to have a job, but have zero affection for the job.

    People without a job can choose their own goals to accomplish.  Rebuild an old car, write music or stories, travel to interesting places, develop skills in games, etc.  A lot of modern computer games are intensely challenging experiences that require the development of skills and give a feeling of accomplishment after victory.  Then there are the games that encourage craftsmanship and design.  Minecraft is essentially a giant array of blocks that can be arranged creatively and requires knowledge, skill, and effort.

    The modern trend toward avoiding work is less about continuous leisure, and more about wanting to find fulfilling accomplishment however you want.  This means less of an interest in work per se, but still interest in achievement.  I’d imagine that if the economy improves, and the job market gets better, there will be more people working in jobs that they like and derive fulfillment from.

    • #64
  5. Derek Simmons Member
    Derek Simmons

    OmegaPaladin: The modern trend toward avoiding work is less about continuous leisure, and more about wanting to find fulfilling accomplishment however you want.

    YES: the trend is toward self and self-satisfaction. You have near-perfectly nailed the “Me (me me me) generation.

    • #65
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