The Laziness Lie

Were we all sold a bill of goods when it comes to ‘working hard’?

Photo: Brandy Kennedy on Unsplash

I’ve long thought about the intersection of work and spirituality. Every Sunday at church, in addition to gospel music, we would solemnly sing all four verses of a hymn. Usually those hymns were about work. This one in particular stems from a Bible verse. The hymn’s name is “Work, for the Night Is Coming.”

“Work, for the night is coming,
Work through the sunny noon;
Fill brightest hours with labor—
Rest comes sure and soon.
Give every flying minute
Something to keep in store;
Work, for the night is coming,
When man works no more.

I sang joyfully. Work! Work! Work! And somehow those words sank in. I worked. I didn’t sit still. When I rested, it was at night, in bed. Naps? Who took those? Too much work to be done.

There’s a lot to unpack with some of the hymns, but as I entered college and studied more, I often wondered if some of those songs were deliberately written or deliberately used to remind enslaved people to keep at it so they would never rest. If so, such songs were the ultimate Jedi mind trick.

That one hymn sprang to mind as I read the Devon Price piece in Momentum about the laziness lie. In part, Price writes that laziness was seen as the opposite of working, and that enslaved people—and others near the bottom of the totem pole in early America—were often told the solution to their woes is to work more. Bootstraps, anybody?

These exploited groups were also taught that working hard without complaint was virtuous and that desiring free time was morally suspect.

Then there’s this part:

These two origins illustrate the odd doublespeak at work whenever we call someone lazy. When we say someone is lazy, we’re saying they’re incapable of completing a task due to (physical or mental) weakness, but we’re also claiming that their lack of ability somehow makes them morally corrupt. They’re at once incapacitated and somehow to blame for it. The idea that lazy people are evil fakers who deserve to suffer has been embedded in the word since the very start.

There is a lot to consider in this piece, especially as I also consider the popularity of the Nap Ministry and the revolutionary essays I’ve read on here about the need for rest — especially for Black women.

Danielle Moodie wrote about why rest is crucial for those of us fighting the fight — whether that be at your kid’s school, against police, in the political realm, or at the doctor’s office. We never get to let our guard down, but sometimes we do need to rest and let someone else take up the watch so we can grab some shut-eye. Hence: community. In theory, your community can keep watch so you can rest.

Moodie also writes this as a reminder for why rest is revolutionary:

It has become evident that exhaustion is indeed the point. Why? Because it is the breeding ground for hopelessness.

Hopeless, tired people can’t strategize. It’s hard to think straight. Yet many of us generally agree that we must work or are taught we must work all day long to be found of value. In fact, most news stories about well, anything, point to the work a person does as some sort of meaningful descriptor. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t.

Work, for the night is coming. And yes, we should store up food while the sun is shining. But somehow laziness and some sort of righteous exhaustion got mixed up in that message — or at least got mixed up in the messages I was taught as a child. I’ve come to the conclusion, after years of working to near exhaustion, that that type of work doesn’t actually work out. But I guess if you don’t work in this way, you might be seen — by some — as lazy.

Director, Multicultural @Medium. Focusing on ZORA, Momentum, Level and bolstering creators of color. All ideas welcome. And yes, I’ll still be writing.

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