Religious or not, Easter proves we need more ‘holy days’

Feeling burned out and time-poor? This Easter, Justine Toh makes a case for rejecting our 'worship of work'.

It’s very hard to make the case for more, not less, Christianity in public life. Except when it comes to public holidays.

Even if Christmas Day gets lost in the bounty of the summer school break, the Easter long weekend offers four glorious days off work. They are so welcome right now. It’s still warmish and the beach beckons after a washed-out summer. For Airbnb, it’s bonanza time.

But Good Friday to Easter Monday is not just any long weekend. It’s a cathedral carved out of time. No matter what you believe, if you’re burned out and time-poor (and who isn’t?) you’ll crave this kind of church. After two years and counting of the pandemic, we all want to believe there’s more to life than work.

We’re not alone in reassessing that work-life relationship.

In the US, the Great Resignation has seen millions of Americans quit their jobs because of low pay, poor career advancement and feeling disrespected at work, Pew Research reported last month.

Over in China, millennial workers are “lying flat” in protest against a toxic “996″ work culture lauded by the likes of Jack Ma, CEO of online shopping behemoth Alibaba. Sick of working 9am to 9pm, six days a week, people are exiting the rat race and forgoing traditional markers of success – marriage, buying a house, working extra hours or even working at all – for a more leisurely life.

Even noticing how we idolise workers who sacrifice themselves to their jobs gives us greater perspective. “We so overvalue excessive work that burnout itself becomes a badge of honour, a way of signalling that you are an ideal worker,” Jon Malesic, author of The End of Burnouttold me in an interview. “You worked so hard that you ruined your life. It becomes a kind of martyrdom.”

Long before the pandemic, however, comedian Ali Wong nailed our chronic exhaustion with work. Flouting hustle culture as well as Sheryl Sandberg-style workplace empowerment, Wong declared: “I don’t wanna ‘lean in’ … I wanna lie down.”

Preach, sister.

Our worship of work has been called, variously, a “burnout society” or a world of “total work” where everything is geared towards maximum productivity and profitability. Whatever you call it, something is seriously askew about the way we work. Two days of weekend just isn’t enough.

Enter the holy day – what today we call the “holiday”. Australia may be “the land of the long weekend” but we’ve got nothing on our ancient and medieval forebears. According to Sebastian de Grazia’s classic study of leisure, people then enjoyed as many as 115 days a year off work. At current entitlements in NSW, a farmhand in the Middle Ages received the equivalent of almost three bouts of long service leave. Every year.

Sure, Productivity Commissioners will wince at any suggestion we reboot this for the 21st century. But history reminds us that our work patterns aren’t inevitable, that we can make work work for us – rather than us becoming slaves to “total work”. This would mean reminding ourselves that we exist to do more than just work. Here, however, opinions will differ.

Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper says leisure is linked to divine worship. For Pieper, leisure is not simply time off work but a condition of the soul, unhurried attentiveness to the world and who we are in it.

For those celebrating Easter, God gave generously of himself to give new life to all. Surely, no one would complain about more holy days to dwell on such a profound claim.

This gets spiritual quickly, says Pieper, since we soon realise we did nothing to earn our existence. Instead, we receive the world as a gift. We have a sense of this – think of our gratitude last week at the sight of the sun after months of grey skies.

“Total work” may demand our maximum output but God – for Pieper, the giver of all the gifts – doesn’t work this way. Instead, “calculation is thrown to the winds and goods are deliberately squandered … usefulness is forgotten and generosity reigns”.

For those celebrating Easter, God gave generously of himself to give new life to all. It’s a belief that well fits Pieper’s gift logic. Surely, no one would complain about more holy days to dwell on such a profound claim.

Of course, you can enjoy a leisurely break without contemplating the things of God. But Malesic offers a provocation worth your time this Easter long weekend: “Something must be sacred so work can be profane.”

Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of Achievement Addiction.

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.