We are not always and necessarily what we do. This relatively new phenomenon, which requires us to introduce ourselves by first saying what we do for a living or by suffixing our names with cryptic initials, has only led us to believe that we can only be what we already are or, at the very least, with the hot air in the midst of which first greetings are made, that we are happy with what we have become.
It has not always been this way. Before Benjamin Franklin wrote his instructions, which in their cheaply printed form now sit on the desks of many an aspiring office drone, or before Weber noticed the preternatural diligence of Protestants, who held that their salvation lay not in the stars but in the worldly success they owe to their own hands, one was allowed to be a cabbage farmer while responding to late night calls as the neighborhood doctor, or a to be a seer while doing shoe repairs if there were no urgent questions.
When capitalism promised that exponential return (in principle) could be had, if the farmer would only work harder than what was usual, both in the amount of time he catered to his garden (early to bed, early to rise . . . ) and in the determination by which his work is carried out (no pain, no gain), the farmer, who now has to produce more than what his family of four needs for a day or two, could no longer attend to the emergency that happened in his friend's granary or tend to the dying dog of his brother.
But in exchange for three hours less sleep and the weariness against which his body everyday revolted, he comes home a little richer thinking he's a lot happier.
Willy Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, believed in such a promise that in his time came seductively dressed as the post-war American Dream.
A traveling salesman, Willy had spent his career believing that the path to success was paved by long hours and far-off sales calls, and that sparkling new refrigerators or low-interest house mortgages can be paid-off if one persisted in obediently following the boss’ orders, because it would be impossible for the higher-up not to take notice of the worker ant's devotion and, therefore, one can expect a timely promotion when the indifferent mailman carrying bills and notices soon arrives.
But after those years of hitting the road, that irreversible day came when he had to admit to his boss that he was already tired and old and wanted an office position that paid at least forty dollars. The superior, the son of Willy's friend who was with him in the early years of the company, rejects him politely, saying there was no more space for a man who needed rest and he had no more time because he had other people to meet that morning.
So Willy turns to his sons, Happy and Biff, only to be disappointed because the elder failed to live up to his father's high expectations and the younger preferred herding cattle than wearing ties and making phone calls. Out of despair or love, and betrayed by the promise that any low man could be happy if he only willed himself, the salesman crashes his car with the hope that if his life could no longer provide for his family or pay off the mortgage, his death and the accompanying money from his insurance probably could.
The desire to define ourselves by the work that we do finds its metaphysical grounding in the Thomistic concept agere sequitur esse, or act follows being.
The way we manifest ourselves to the world and other beings is determined by our nature or identity as a being with this or that level of potentiality. Taken negatively (I think this is a distortion of St. Thomas), when a being does not act and does not stand out of nothingness, a being flattens or suspends and perhaps even cancels its own existence. However, it is not as if the ontologically lazy being is suddenly annihilated, evaporates and transforms into a no-thing: it is still is, it is perceptible, seen and there. But there no longer seems to be a difference between nothing and an inactive being--that is, inactive beings look and walk like nonbeings.
We commonly hear this when they say, rather cruelly so, that "he is good for nothing" or "wala kang kuwenta." The unfair remark, once practical and ontological, declares the bum or the idler as dead weight ("pandiin sa lupa"). And I think the accused would rather that you stab him with a knife than be victim to such metaphysical murder.
Martin Heidegger in Being and Time also gave an existential basis for the way we act in the world. He said in his work that what initially and for the most part characterizes our human existence or Dasein is our concern for things (Sorge). When we wash our bodies or clean up tables, fix leaking faucets or close half-open doors, we show that we cannot but tend to the things around us because they concern us and matter to us.
It is not, however, that a misaligned spoon or an unattended door is of great consequence to our being; it just so happens that, like the everyday torture obsessive-compulsives go through, there is something which makes it hard for us not to straighten the erring utensil or perimeter open spaces. In a word, we just care--for the being of others and of ourselves.
Whence come the everyday tedium of household chores and trips to the supermarket, the eternal recurrence of committee meetings and evaluation seminars, the inevitable visit to the dentist or the confessional, applications for life insurance and the acquisition of property in the cemetery while they are still cheap.
Sometimes we feel that the goal of everyday existence is nothing else but ticking off items on a grocery list, while the span of one's life could be likened to an industrious party planning committee working on how to celebrate your fatality.
But what if there are days, coming few and far in between, when the grip of everyday concern and the dictatorship of work loosen or relax, and we allow ourselves to not care or "give a damn" even for a while? What happens then?
Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch Master who brought everyday life and ordinary scenes to the foreground of his canvas, depicted one such scenario that can be quite familiar to us though we seldom let others know about. In A Girl Asleep Vermeer allows us to enter hush-hush a rather ordinary and even uninspiring household to catch the maid of the house who, instead of tidying things up and doing her work, has decided to instigate a little uprising against her masters.
Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Milkmaid). And to top it off the party of two had some wine the mistress herself probably bought.
After her little drinking spree, and with her cheeks and forehead already hinting red stains, the maid decided that she's had enough, and so she promptly sets it aside with the other things she will tidy up in a while. It was really supposed to be a brief shuteye: she did not lie more comfortably elsewhere, and she didn't put her head down on her arms on the surface of the table. Thus her left hand, daintily resting on the edge of the table, is still present in the room while half of her is already elsewhere.
The unintended nap was more like closing your eyes during the morning commute because there is nothing else to look at or to do, or like trying to take a snooze in a boring lecture because you already heard that story for the eighth time and the professor won't catch you anyway. You're still awake, you know that you're awake but you just want to pretend you're not so you can get away from where you are and what you have to do--and just let things wait.
*We sometimes forget that there is no strict necessity and urgency in work: a toppled glass will be fine for a while because you know you will still have to pick it up later on, and the office will still run in those days you do not report for work; that there is no sense in pretending to be a businessman when all you want is your own farm, and idleness is not the devil's workshop for those who can dream.
Only eternity will be the final judge whether all that work, to which you have given so much importance, so much time, so much of your self, will leave any mark in the world. So until then allow yourself to take a nap or the day off because eternity is in no hurry.