A Spirit-Filled Life Beyond the Protestant Work Ethic
My relationship to the Protestant identity has been a stormy one from the start. My parents left their respective denominations to become Quakers as a young married couple. They helped to start a new meeting, and I was the first baby born into that Quaker community. My father, having turned his back on the beliefs and theology of his childhood, held firmly—and fiercely—to the position that we were not Protestants.
At a week-long Girl Scout camp when I was 10 or 11, it was announced that there would be Sunday services for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, and we were to choose the group to which we belonged. I was petrified. I was none of these things, and had no idea what they would make me do if they got me inside their doors. I pled desperately to my parents, and they intervened. In my heart and mind, I was really, really, really not a Protestant.
Revisiting this whole identity issue as an adult, however, I had to come to terms with the realities of religion in history. Protestants, I learned, were a schismatic bunch. The break from the Catholic Church was the first of many, and my father’s fierce determination to turn his back on those other, less enlightened, groups was a classic Protestant move. I couldn’t avoid the reality that my distinct and beloved branch was part of a larger tree. Not only that, but I was embedded in a Protestant culture that was way more vast and deep than any particular set of beliefs or practices.
And the whole idea of work, that our beliefs were our own business, but there was no excuse for not working our butts off in service to those values. That Protestant work ethic is where the cultural part of the identity really hits home for me.
One is the idea of individualism: that we could strike out on our own, separate ourselves from the crowd, shape our own destiny, and free ourselves from the heavy weight of the past. And the whole idea of work is another: that our beliefs were our own business, but there was no excuse for not working our butts off in service to those values. That Protestant work ethic is where the cultural part of the identity really hits home for me.
If there was one thing you could say about my family, it was that we worked. We took pride in how hard we could work and how much we could accomplish, and judged everyone—ourselves included—in comparison to the hardest worker in our midst. Work was also a protection for me as a child. If I could take up a hard piece of work—preferably without being asked—and keep at it (even if I couldn’t make a difference with the things that mattered most), nobody could say that I wasn’t trying. I have that same feeling to this day. If I’m working hard, I’m safe from judgment. My worth is secure.
Now this pattern of behavior has advantages. Being undaunted by big challenges is a great gift. While I’m tending to my safety and worth, a lot is getting done. But there are some serious drawbacks—mostly in the area of relationships. If worth is measured by output, then the harder I work, the more people there are to be better than. If spending time on relationships eats away at opportunities to be productive, I gravitate toward increasing isolation in a world of work. And, to the extent that fun is lumped in with relationships and other competing non-essential activities, then color drains steadily out of my life.
So, what to do with a Protestant work ethic that has dug its tentacles so deeply into my psyche? I made a great start early in the pandemic when all routines were thrown into chaos. I exchanged my “to-do” list, with all the satisfaction of slashing through items as they are completed, for a web of things and people I love, with a little heart drawn over those I have paid attention to. This has been a transformative practice. Whether at any moment I am enjoying its fruits or falling back into old work habits, it calls me steadily to relationship.
Building on this experience, I’m now contemplating an entirely new paradigm for living. What if my reason for existence is not to work? What if—dare I even imagine—it could be to simply show up as fully as I know how in relationship to the world around me?
While work could be involved, it would not be centered. This is not a comfortable prospect. I imagine generations of hardworking Protestant ancestors shaking their heads and bemoaning my lack of discipline. Theology that I was never taught, but has seeped into my very bones, protests. If you leave the straight and narrow, there will be no shape to your life. You will be beset by temptation. Your worth will be cast into doubt.
I am also bedeviled by my attitude toward the work of others. Beyond generic feelings of judgment, I struggle when their casual approach leaves more work for me. Most recently, it was a teenager who needed a place to stay for a few days. He entertained himself with a screen all day, then cooked late at night and left all his dishes. A suggestion that he clean up resulted in one washed bowl.
It was easy enough for me to finish the job. But as I did it, I wrote him off, retreating to a familiar and far-away place of martyrdom: if I do your work, it’s at the cost of connection. While this response from my childhood feels justified, it just doesn’t fit with an intention to show up in relationship. Somehow I have to value the relationship over the work. This can’t mean just transferring their load to my shoulders. It can’t mean trying to fix them. To show up in relationship has to mean bringing my power and goodness into alignment and connection with another’s power and goodness, and looking for a way forward together. But washing the dishes in self-righteous and lonely indignation seems so much easier! Who would choose hard and messy emotional labor over straightforward productivity? I feel so resistant; it’s clear that there’s something in it for me in going down this path.
How can we honor the intentions of our people, and shift toward a new way of being, one that abandons work as the measure of all things? How can we instead enable a way of being that puts hope and faith in the power of showing up in relationship, of fostering the social systems needed to ensure common well-being, and of caring for local ecosystems and the earth that provides for us all?
Surely I’m not the only one here. Our country and much of the western world was built on Protestant values, is steeped in them. If I work hard, I have value; if you don’t work, you are expendable. Accumulating wealth shows a good work ethic; failing to do so is morally suspect. Ploughing the prairie is virtuous work; learning to live with its gifts is a lesser way of being. Striving for more mastery is strong; finding ways to be content within limits is weak.
As I grapple with this challenge of taking on a whole new worldview, I think of my father, encased in the Protestant work ethic while fiercely determined to find a better way for himself and his family. How can we honor the intentions of our people, and shift—singly, in groups, and all together—toward a new way of being with each other, the economy, and the earth: one that abandons work and the signs of work as the measure of all things? How can we instead enable a way of being that puts hope and faith in the power of showing up in relationship—to loved ones and neighbors—of fostering the social systems we need to ensure our common well-being, and of caring for our local ecosystems and the earth that provides for us all? Maybe our Protestant ancestors—and our descendants—would all breathe a sigh of relief.