Work-Life Balance: Advice for Attaining Peacefulness in Daily Routines and Within Our Souls
COMMENTARY: Seeing in-office and out-of-office through a Catholic-Christian lens
The notion of work-life balance receives considerable attention in our Western culture. It’s often treated as an elusive ideal that is scarcely attainable and barely sustainable. Yet work-life balance is necessary for living the abundant life to which Christians are called.
To help us find the sweet spot between idleness and frenetic chaos, we can look to Scripture, the teaching of the magisterium, and the lives of the saints for inspiration.
We must understand that working is good for us. Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Exercens explains that, through work, humans participate in God’s work of creation. More specifically, John Paul II states, “Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe.” Indeed, the fact that God himself spent six of seven days working is sufficient evidence that work is a necessary and integral part of our human existence as ordained by God.
Yet the popular idiom “too much of a good thing” holds true for work, as it does for so many other human activities.
In his book Overcoming the Evil Within, Father of Mercy Wade Menezes notes that virtue lies between two extremes, saying, “It is important to recognize that each of the capital sins has not only an opposite virtue to counteract it, but also an opposite extreme that, though antithetical to it, can do just as much damage in a person’s life.”
Relevant to our focus on work-life balance, the capital sin of sloth comes readily to mind. While it is easy to recognize our slothfulness when we are actively avoiding what we know we ought to do, preferring instead to engage in myriad distractions, we are less likely to recognize sloth in the workaholism and frenetic activity of our modern culture. Both, however, are sides of the same sinful coin.
Msgr. Charles Pope explains, “Many people today equate sloth with laziness. But sloth is not merely laziness; it is more properly understood as sorrow or indifference. While sloth may sometimes look like boredom and a casual laziness toward attaining spiritual good, it can also be manifested by a frantic ‘busyness’ with worldly things so as to avoid spiritual questions or living a reflective life.” We can see, therefore, that an imbalance in our work lives, either by working too little or too much, makes us vulnerable to the sin of sloth, which, if left unchecked, can lead us to a spiritual apathy whereby we become the lukewarm souls that Our Lord warned he would “vomit out of his mouth” (Revelation 3:16).
The graphic and severe language used in Scripture should warn us of the seriousness of sloth. We should likewise be on guard against its more subtle arrival into our lives under the cloak of busyness.
Leisure Is Good
Writing for Catholic Answers Magazine on the same theme, Leon Suprenant asks a provocative question that may help us evaluate the state of (un)balance in our working lives: “Most of us understand and periodically struggle with the natural aversion to work, but why do we find it so difficult to enjoy leisure?”
Pause here and reflect with me. Returning to the wisdom of St. John Paul II, “Man ought to imitate God both in working and also in resting, since God himself wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest. … Therefore man’s work too not only requires a rest every ‘seventh day,’ but also cannot consist in the mere exercise of human strength in external action; it must leave room for man to prepare himself, by becoming more and more what in the will of God he ought to be, for the ‘rest’ that the Lord reserves for his servants and friends.”
Two important points can be found in this excerpt: First, rest is good, as God rested. Second, both rest and work in balance are necessary for our human flourishing. And to be clear, what we might call “holy rest” is not simply the absence of activity, but rather allowing ourselves to be quiet in the presence of God.
In the same Catholic Answers Magazine article, Suprenant suggests that our difficulty in resting is at least in part due to the fact that our Western society has largely lost a sense of God, and in turn we experience a pervasive emptiness and ennui, which we attempt to fill with any number of distractions. Additionally, much of our identity is tied to our occupation.
Many of us in North America define ourselves largely by what we do. Therefore, a time of rest, an opportunity to simply be in God’s presence, may seem awkward, intimidating and frivolous to an overscheduled, hyper-caffeinated nation. But resting is exactly what our Christian faith calls us to do. “My soul rests in God alone, from whom comes my salvation” (Psalm 62).
So, if we find ourselves out of balance, and if the busyness of work and daily life has taken over and our batteries are perpetually running on low, how might we begin to regain the equilibrium commanded in Scripture and necessary for virtue?
Keeping Sunday Holy
We might start by evaluating how well we are “keeping holy the Sabbath.” To keep Sunday holy is not a suggestion, but a commandment — and one instituted by God out of justice, to ensure that we offer worship to the Lord.
Worshipping God in turn provides the foundation for our spiritual health, which spills over into all aspects of our lives.
So what do our Sundays look like? Attending weekly Mass is the bare minimum. Have we filled the day with other unnecessary tasks, chores or hobbies? If so, perhaps that is a good place to start to regain a sense of work-life balance. Can we protect Sundays as a day to attend Mass, rest with our loved ones, and spend extra time in prayer? It may take some effort to reorganize our schedules, but, as Suprenant reminds us, keeping Sundays holy is a big step toward restoring balance to our lives.
Beyond Sundays, what do our calendars look like for the rest of the week? Is everything we have planned absolutely necessary? Have we overextended ourselves or underestimated the time necessary to complete certain tasks? Even things that are good and well-intentioned can become burdensome if we have taken on too much. Have we left ourselves time for daily prayer and silence with the Lord? Even 10 to 15 minutes a day is a good start. And if we happen to be in a position — for example, as employers, spouses or parents — where we influence the schedules of others, have we thoughtfully considered the demands we are placing on them and whether we have unintentionally made it difficult for others to achieve the necessary balance in their lives?
While a prayerful analysis of our schedules and the expectations we hold of ourselves and others can be difficult, we cannot move towards a more balanced life without first challenging what we have come to accept as our status quo.
Example of the Saints
Finally, we can look to the saints for inspiration on how to live an integrated virtuous life.
Reflecting on the idea of balance, Father Mike Schmitz defines balance as “everything being in its place.” This definition of work-life balance reminded me of the frequently recounted response of St. Dominic Savio, who was asked by St. John Bosco while playing football what he would do if he only had one hour left to live. To this question, the young saint replied, “I would continue playing football.”
What an example of freedom! I believe it was explained by Father Menezes that what allowed St. Dominic Savio to have such confidence was that he was doing what he ought to do when he ought to be doing it — in other words, living a balanced life.
This is but one example of the saints, who were able to live balanced but intense lives, because, as Father Schmitz put it, they “sought first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33); or, in the words of St. Augustine, “Love God, then do what you will.”
Reordering our priorities so that God is at the center allows us to separate the truly important from the deceptively urgent — and, over time, like the saints, attain a peacefulness in our daily routines and within our souls.
And we can look to the wisdom of St. Francis de Sales, who advises, “Do everything calmly and peacefully. Do as much as you can as well as you can. Strive to see God in all things without exception, and consent to his will joyously. Do everything for God, uniting yourself to him in word and deed. Walk very simply with the cross of the Lord and be at peace with yourself.”
Danielle Lamb is an associate professor in the Department of Human Resources Management and Organizational Behaviour at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Toronto Metropolitan University. Her research examines issues related to the earnings and employment of historically underrepresented workers.
- work-life balance
- peace of christ
- mind, body and soul
- dignity of work
- keeping holy the sabbath
- catholic living