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There are commonplace maxims that people go on repeating thoughtlessly, and in the light of which they determine their conduct without once stopping to consider whether the assumed truth, looked at in the light of reason, may not turn out to be a lie. We know, of course, that there are many “truths” that may under certain circumstances prove to be falsehoods. Everything is in a state of flux! Truth and falsehood are wave crests and wave troughs, an endless stream driving the mills of humanity.
Such notorious maxims as the following are trumpeted into our ears from the days of our youth: “Work makes life sweet”; “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do”; “the life of man is three-score-and-ten, and if it has been a happy one it is due to work and striving.” These truisms are beaten into us, drummed into us, and hammered into us from all sides; we hear them wherever we go, till finally we accept them, completely convinced. And it is well that it is so. What would the world look like if everybody pressed his claim to laziness? Think of the hideous chaos that would ensue if the wheels of industry came to a stop!
The admonition to work has its origin in humanity’s instinct of self-preservation. It does not spring from one’s own needs but only from the needs of others. Apparently, we all work for ourselves, but in reality, we are always working for others. How very small is the number of those who do their work gladly and cheerfully! How very many give vent to their aversion to work by means of apparent dissatisfaction with their calling! And where can we find a man nowadays who is contented with his calling?
Let us begin our study of a man with that period of his life in which he was not ashamed to show his impulses to the light of day, in which repression and education had not yet exerted their restraining influences, in other words, let us begin with the observation of childhood. With astonishment, we note, first, that the child’s impulse to idleness is stronger than the impulse to work. Play is for a long time the child’s idleness as well as its work. A gymnast who proudly swings the heaviest dumb-bells before his colleagues would vent himself in curses, deep if not loud, if he had to do this as work; the heavy-laden tourist who pants his way up steep mountain paths would curse his very existence if he had to travel these difficult trails in the service of mankind in the capacity of—let us say—letter-carrier; the card player who works in the sweat of his brow for hours in the stuffy café to make his thousand or ten thousand points would complain bitterly at his hard lot and at the cruelty of his employers if he had to do an equivalent amount of work in the office. Anything that does not bear the stamp of work becomes in the play-form recreation and a release from almost unbearable tyranny.
The child’s world is play. Unwillingly and only on compulsion does it perform imposed tasks (It would have even its education made a kind of play). Many parents worry about this and complain that their children take no pleasure in work, seem to have no sense of duty, forget to do their school work, and have to be forced to do their exercises. Stupid parents! If they only stopped to think they would realise that this frank display of an impulse to laziness is a sign of their children’s sanity. For we often enough observe the opposite phenomenon. Children who take their duties too seriously, who wake too early in the morning lest they should be late for school, who are always poring over their books, scorning every opportunity to play, are usually “nervous” children. Exaggerated diligence is one of the first symptoms of neurosis.
One who can look back upon his own childhood must admit that the impulse to indolence is stronger than any other childhood impulse. I recall how unwillingly I went to high school. Once I read in a newspaper that a high school had burned to the ground and that the pupils would not be able to go to school for several weeks. For days, I and my friends were disappointed as we looked at our own grey school building that stood there safe and sound. Had it not burned down yet?! Were we not to have any luck at all?!
Who is not acquainted with the little sadistic traits that almost all children openly manifest? Such a sadistic motive was our secret hope that this or that teacher would get sick and we would be excused from attendance at school. What a joy once possessed the whole class when we discovered that the Latin teacher was sick just on the day when we should have had to recite his subject! That was a grand prize! And how the child detests always being driven to work! Always the same disagreeable questions: “Have you no lessons to do today?” “Have you done all your lessons?” The most profound wish of all who do not yet have to provide for themselves is once to get a chance to be as lazy as their hearts might desire.
But we adults, too, who know the pleasure of work and of fulfilled obligations, long for idleness. For us, too, the vice of laziness is an exquisite pleasure. We find it necessary continually to overcome the tendency to laziness by new little resolutions. In the morning.. laziness whispers; stay a little longer in your warm bed; it’s so comfortable. Another few seconds and the sense of duty prevails over the desire for idleness. In the afternoon, we would love to spend an hour in pleasant daydreams. Work conquers this wish too. And with what difficulty, we get out of the performance of some task in the evening! It is an everlasting conflict even though it is in most cases a subconscious conflict with the sweet seducer of mankind: laziness.
That is why the lawgivers have ordained days on which the urge for laziness may be gratified. These are called holidays. Religion has made this right to laziness a duty to God. The more holidays a religion has, the more welcome must it appear to labouring humanity. That is why the various religious systems so readily take over one another’s holidays. The Catholic Church appropriated ancient heathenish feasts, and Jews bow to Sunday’s authority just as the Christian does.
Persons who suppress the inclination to laziness get sick. Their nerves fail soon and their capacity for work suffers serious diminution. And then we say that they had overworked. Not at all infrequently illness is only a refuge in idleness, a defence against a hypertrophied impulse to work. This is frequently observable in persons afflicted with nervousness. They are unfit for work, waste themselves away in endless gloomy broodings, in bitter self-reproaches, and in hypochondriacal fears. They do not tire of repeatedly protesting how happy they would be, if they could get back to work again. But if their unconscious mental life is analyzed, one discovers with astonishment that the greatest resistance to a cure is offered by their laziness, the fear of work. This is one of the greatest dangers for the nervous patient. If a neurotic has once tasted of the sweets of laziness, it is a very difficult matter to get him to work again. All the varieties of fatigue “cramps” known to neurologists, e.g., writer’s cramp, pianist’s cramp, violinist’s cramp, typewriter’s cramp, etc., are rebellions on the part of the tendency to laziness. A return to work is possible only if, in the absence of an actual organic malady, the psychic element we have called “refuge in disease” is taken into consideration and given due weight.
This reluctance to work is most frequently noticeable in the puzzling “traumatic neuroses,” the so-called “accident or compulsion hysterias” in which the so-called “hunger for damages” plays the most important role. Since labourers have acquired the right to recover damages for accidental injuries, the number of traumatic neuroses has increased so tremendously that insurance companies can scarcely meet the claims. This is also true of the neuroses following railway and streetcar accidents. Only seldom can objective injuries be demonstrated in these cases. But not withstanding this, the injured person becomes depressed, moody, sleepless, and utterly unfit for any work. Yet it would be very unjust to consider them simulators. They are really sick. Their psychic make-up has suffered a bad shaking-up. The pleasure in work has suffered a rude shock because of the unconscious prospect of pecuniary “damages,” i.e. of an opportunity for laziness. Repressed desires from childhood are re-animated. Why should you work, says the alluring voice of the unconscious, when you can lounge about and live on an income? Don’t be a fool! Get sick like the others who loll about idly and need not work! And consciousness, in its weakness, takes no note of the conflict in the unconscious, is frightened by the unknown restlessness and sleeplessness, and gets sick… It is an obstinate conflict between laziness and industry from which only too often the former emerges triumphant…
Finally, the need for laziness becomes overpowering in all of us from time to time. We long for a vacation. We want to recuperate from work. Well, there are a few sensible people. These go off into a corner somewhere and are as lazy as they can be. They lie in the grass and gaze at the heavens for hours; or they go fishing in some clear stream, — one of the best ways of wasting time; they sit in a rowboat, letting someone else do the rowing or just keeping the boat in motion with an occasional stroke. In this way, day after day is spent in dolce far niente until one wearies of laziness and an intense longing for work fills one’s whole being. Variety is the spice of life. Without idleness, work loses its charm and value.
Others employ their vacation for new work. These are the eternally restless, industrious, indefatigable ones for whom idleness does not exist. The impulse to laziness which was once so strong, is suppressed and converted into its opposite. These are usually persons who had their fill of laziness in childhood and who thoroughly enjoyed their youth. (We may refer briefly to a few well-known instances of this: there was Charles Darwin who began to work only after he left college; Bismarck, whose student days were a period of riot and idleness; John Hunter was another striking example.)
They continue with their work even while they are on their vacation. They make work even of their visits to art galleries, museums, show-places, and of their breathless flying trips hither and thither. This is really not the kind of idleness that means a relaxation of tension. It’s only a variation in the kind of impressions. A sea-voyage would be a compromise between the two antagonistic tendencies. That’s why Englishmen prefer a sea-voyage to other forms of rest. Onboard ship, a person must be lazy. He sits on the deck and stares at the waves. The vastness of the sea stands between him and his work. He must be idle. Impressions fly by him; he does not have to go in search of them.
The right to laziness is one of the rights that sensible humanity will learn to consider as something self-evident. For the time being, we are still in conflict with ourselves. We shun the truth. We look upon laziness as something degrading. We still stand in too much awe of ourselves to be able to find the right measure. Our mothers’ voices still ring in our ears: “Have you done your lessons?”