The Nap Ministry

I learned to nap when I was a teenager. I was working at a lumber yard—my brothers and I all did that in the summers—and I remember walking a few blocks to lunch at home and then lying on the floor in the living room for a quick nap before going back to work. I remember sleeping soundly for fifteen minutes and waking refreshed and going back to work.

As I look back, I am not quite sure how much of that actually happened but I remember it all clearly and my brothers, who sometimes keep an eye on this blog, will all have views.

Fast forward to grad school at the University of Oregon. I began to work with the idea that the “problems” we tried to solve were of our own making. We encounter difficulties of all kinds because of who we are and the way life is organized in our society, but how we construe them [1]—formulate them as problems to be solved—is up to us. There are, accordingly, “good problems” and “bad problems.” The good ones help you see what to do next and call on your best efforts.

In this morning’s New York Times, Cassady Rosenblum wrote a column called “Work is a False Idol.” In that column, I first heard about “the nap ministry,” which, as an actual organization (see I have no interest in at all, but with my background in napping and in the formulation of useful problems, I can hardly stay away from it.

What’s the problem? That’s often a way of asking, “What’s wrong with it?” That’s not the way I use it. What I mean is, “What problem have you constructed to give a useful shape to this collection of events?” So, how about the one embedded in this headline: Work is a False Idol?

Idols are objects of worship. Why are we talking about worship? And if we are going to talk about worship, why specify “idols” which are false by definition. [2] This is a terrible problem, although it is probably not a bad headline.

The group Ms. Rosenblum cites, “the nap ministry” has a heading that is even worse. They ask, at the top of their page, “How will you be useless to capitalism today?”

The goal suggested in this problem formulation is that you find a way to be useless to capitalism. “Capitalism” in most journalistic contexts, is a word much like “idolatry.” It’s hard to say just what it is, but we know it is bad. We used to hear about attempts to “overthrow” capitalism, a problem with its own difficulties, but aspiring to be useless to “capitalism” is not even a thought worth having. “I have succeeded today! I have been of no use at all to capitalism!” Woohoo!”

There is no distinction, in these problems between work that really needs to be done and “fill the time” work. There is no distinction between work through which you express yourself and in which you find great joy. It’s all “work,” presuming you receive monetary compensation for it, and so runs the risk of being “useful” to capitalism. Oh dear.

There are lots of ways to formulate meaningful problems, problems that are actually worth solving, At the national level, you might ask how the goods and services we need could be produced without causing so much human cost. That’s a good problem. You can come at it either from the end of causing less damage or from the end of repairing quickly and effectively the damage that is caused. Those are both good problems. They help you see what to do next and they mobilize you to do your best work on them.

At the personal level, you could aspire to live a meaningful and satisfying life by doing work that will compensate you adequately and by refusing meaningless competitions or display. Those specifications set a very low bar for “adequately” and they enable a whole host of interesting tradeoffs in the choices you make. That’s a good problem too, for the same reasons the systemic formulation is a good problem.

So…not to beat this to death, “staying useless to capitalism” is not a good problem. It will not do for you what needs to be done. “Refusing to worship the idol of work” is not a good problem either. Aiming at defeating abstract forces is just unlikely to bring you the intentional clarity you will need, so reject such aims. Make good problems instead. And then get to work.

[1] We get that word from a Latin verb, construere, which means to build. How very appropriate!
[2] Etymologically, idolatry is the worship of images, the Greek is
eidōlon. If you really want to do it, you should call them icons.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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