Something about Sabbaths

by Yule Heibel on June 14, 2003

It’s been Saturday all day, and here’s a plug for doing nothing. It might be the secret of happiness and efficiency. Towards the mid-1980s, when I was a student at the University of British Columbia, I began adhering to my own idiosyncratic version of “time off.” I had these rules: no matter how many papers were due, no matter how heavy the seminar, I did no work whatsoever on Friday evenings, on Saturday afternoons (and evenings), and on Sunday mornings. That added up to one full day plus an evening. All other times were available for whatever stressy thing was coming down the pike, but those same, consistent fragments of days and evenings were absolutely off-limits. It was ritual. I was astoundingly productive during those years. I took my habit to Harvard, and in 5 years completed a PhD program which typically took candidates 8 years or more to complete.

I’m not religious. I have been to a synagogue once, for the funeral of a very special friend and mentor; I have been to a church perhaps three times (one funeral, possibly two weddings, although I only remember one of them); I have never gone to a mosque or other temple. Congregations — crowds where everyone is supposed to be on the same page — upset me and I prefer to avoid them. I was raised without religion; my mother was a hardcore atheist, my father a Catholic who left the church in distress when he was supposed to pray to god for a German wartime victory, which his Walloonian cousins (his mother’s siblings’ children) were praying to for a Belgian victory.

Sabbath-keeping is however a huge religious topic, derived from the Old Testament (“and on the seventh day he rested”), and, see Google, assiduously taken over by New Testamentarians. While religious propaganda doesn’t talk about this, I think sabbath-keeping is also a very male thing, one of the secrets of male productiveness. Women, traditionally, have rarely had the kind of time that a sabbath promises. If women do it, they’re virgins, or childless, or in some way without a man, or so religiously orthodox as to be like sheep to the men. Sabbaths are a paradox — you keep a contrived, essentially artificial obligation to your inner freedom — and that’s a tough thing to do in a demanding world of duties, particularly domestic ones. My 1980s rituals were relatively easy to keep: I had no kids, no pets, simple caretaking demands, a 2-bedroom apartment, no yardwork.

Men complain about losing ground to women who supposedly threaten their masculinity at every turn. But you know what? I think it’s probably just the case that many men are now living the way domestic goddesses always have: on-call 24/7. The desirability of ritualized Big Time (a rendezvous between you and meaning) is slipping away in favour of a weird illusion of availability to others, a kind of totalitarianism that smacks of “Arbeit macht frei” thinking. The ability to say, “on this day (or this part of the day) every week of every year, constantly and without variance, I shall do no work, do nothing that is a mere means to an end,” is a luxury-ritual that typically only males were able to afford fully: the women still had to figure out how to get the meals fixed and on the table. And god presumably allowed them to do the washing up alright. Now we’ve all yoked ourselves to technologies and “lifestyles” that effectively make “down-time” elusive, devolved into entertainment and vegging-out. But if today’s man is a Hausfrau, it’s not the fault of feminism. We don’t get enough sabbath, either. I want to take mine back again, small ritual by small ritual.


Dave Winer June 15, 2003 at 11:56 am

Boy was that a male-basher, yet you point to it as if it were a man complaining. Powerful filters there. A big statistic to add to the mix. Boys die younger than girls. Always have. Wonder why.

Amity June 15, 2003 at 6:10 pm

Know what profession has the longest expected lifespan? Nun.
I myself was turned off of christianity forever the first time I heard the Mary-Martha parable. You know, Martha does all the work taking care of Jesus, but Mary is the more saintly one because she lounges around at Jesus’ feet adoringly. (I have to admit that I also took a disliking to Jesus when he cursed that poor fig tree because it didn’t have any fruit. However, now that I’m six years into my dissertation research with frequently uncooperative plants, I feel a little more sympathetic to him in this respect. Maybe all I need is an enforced Sabbath…)
I have to admit that I didn’t interpret this as a male-bashing piece myself. I thought it was as much about the loss of a blissful inaccessability in the modern world of open-at-all-hours-or-bust, call-me-on-my-mobile attitudes as it was about the changing of gender roles.

In any case, very interesting piece!

Yule Heibel June 16, 2003 at 12:42 am

You’re exactly right, Amity; it is about carving out some space for yourself w/out “means to end” thinking. Anyway, turns out Dave was objecting to an article I pointed to more so than to what I was saying…. But the misunderstanding got me to look at some sites I wouldn’t have found otherwise (see June 15 blog). It’s funny how things work out. As for those uncooperative plants and dissertation work: put yourself in charge, take some time off! It’s JUNE! (PS: loved the Komodo entry, too funny!)

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