We're Overworking In America, And There Are Better Ways To Exist

Jul 21, 2021 at 12:22 pm
Dan Canon.
Dan Canon.

I had the recent misfortune to learn of a death, and then to learn that it occurred long before I learned of it, both facts I wish I had never learned at all.

It’s 2011. I’m 33 years old and getting off a plane in Dublin. I had casually mentioned to a Twitter friend that my soon-to-be wife and I would be arriving on such-and-such day if he’d like to get together. Not five minutes after we hit the ground, Fergus O’Rourke bounded out from behind a terminal column, entirely unannounced, ready to show us the whole country if we’d let him.

Fergus was what we’d call a lawyer and he’d call a barrister. We compared notes on the practice of law over breakfast in Dublin, and later over dinner in County Cork, where he lived and practiced. I asked, “What time do you start court?” “Ah we usually roll in about 10 if there’s a lot going on.” He was jovial. He was relaxed. He was thoughtful. He talked about the law, but also books and philosophy and food and kids.

I didn’t know lawyers could be like that. I don’t know any other Irish barristers, so I can’t say whether Fergus’s character was uniquely his or attributable to Irish legal culture overall. But the idea there was some other way to work, a way that allowed you to stay in bed past 6 a.m., read books just for fun and spend hours with out-of-town weirdoes on a whim, was utterly foreign to me. It seemed unnatural. We go back to America, and I forget.

I’m 29 in Madrid. It’s 1 a.m. on a Monday, or a Tuesday, depending on how you count. There are working people there in the bars, other young professionals, eating free olives and fish, drinking nearly free wine. Though I’ve read enough about the Spanish work ethic to know that things are a little more relaxed, it doesn’t connect for me that this is a way human beings can behave, all the time, and still live productive lives.

I come back to America. I study for the bar exam. A golf ball of flesh lodges itself under my right shoulder blade. It sprouts a vine that hardens my veins, working its way up my trapezius, then into the right column that holds my head up, then climbs into my cheekbone, finally stopping in my right eye. I take the exam. As I walk out of the testing room, the trail from my shoulder blade to my eye catches fire. It burns until I’m half blind and laid out sick for a week. This, I’m told, is a somewhat unusual manifestation of a perfectly natural condition. It’s something to be proud of. An extra stripe to display to fellow worker bees; one that signifies working so hard you made yourself ill.

Now I’m 38 and taking unprescribed Adderall to meet deadlines. I don’t travel anymore because there isn’t time. I haven’t spoken to Fergus since we were in Cork five years ago, but there’ll be time for that later, or there won’t, I don’t care. I take out a big life insurance policy, which costs a little extra because my blood pressure is so high. But the extra cost doesn’t bother me, because this is responsible investment. My retirement plan is to drop dead at my desk, like all the greats of my profession.

I’m 43. I happen to think about Fergus and try to message him, only to see that he died of liver cancer in 2014. I’m reading his Twitter feed, and I’m sad for him. I’m sad for his family. I switch apps and read about Iceland’s wildly successful four-day workweek experiment, then about the Philippines’ new, 105-day paid maternity leave policy, and then about the doomed pitch for federal employees to get any paid medical leave at all in the United States. I’m sad for myself. I’m sad for my daughters. I’m sad for my students. 

The next day, I tell a student never to email me in the middle of the night. Then I tell her to tell everyone she knows not to send emails before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m., not just to me but to anyone. And not just because it’s annoying for the recipient, but because you should be sleeping, or drinking cheap wine, or doing anything the fuck else in the middle of the night.

After all, if we don’t tell each other that it’s not normal or healthy for human beings to spend all their waking hours working, we’ll never know. We’re not likely to get to a place where we have a four-day workweek, or where we can roll into the office whenever after a long night of drinking and singing Andalusian folk songs, but we can at least comprehend and say out loud that there are better ways to exist.

I would like to think that Fergus’ death was caused by some combination of an Irish diet and old age. Perhaps his liver, said to be the source of anger, was so incensed by his refusal to so much as even frown that it finally gave out on him. I do not believe it was from working himself to death, a grotesque and unnatural way for a man to die. He knew better. •