Recession, take me away

We've all been working too hard -- and for what?

Published January 10, 2001 8:33PM (EST)

Come on, recession, take me in your arms.

Like death, recession is nothing to fear. It's to be welcomed as a respite from our strivings. As with death, we struggle against recession. But inwardly, secretly, we long for it. We long for it like the exhausted long for death. We long for it like the weary long for sleep. We long for it like children long for recess.

Recess. Recession. Look it up.

Like death, recession is the absence that makes possible all this glittering presence. It's the concavity in the mountain where we take shelter from the sun; it's the bell-heralded playtime when we're released from our studies.

And at no time more than now, when Americans seem to have surrendered the emboldening rhetoric of labor's dignity to an uneasy embrace of retooled and shiny bosses, has it seemed so possible that the dream of recession is the sublimated wish of an overtaxed labor force for some brief release from ceaseless toil.

We've all been working too hard.

Here in the infant business of the Internet, baubles of magical deliverance from serfdom have hypnotized the inexperienced into believing that the laws of history and capital just might, this time, have been suspended -- just as a previous generation allowed themselves to believe against all empirical evidence that maybe, just maybe, the laws of political power had been lifted in favor of a magical rebirth of universal love.

But nothing has changed. We are as ignorant as ever. Let the recession come. Let it wash over us like a warm darkness. It's what we need. We've all been working too hard.

There's nothing to fear. We have more than enough. Never have we been richer. True, we are stingy by nature and unkind, and have never, as a nation, committed to caring for the sick and the poor. Indeed, we find ourselves remarkably able to step over dying bodies on the street without breaking down in tears. But as a nation we have never been richer or safer and this good fortune, while we might claim otherwise, makes it easier to acquiesce in an "economic slowdown."

We are willing to slow down because chiefly we toil to eat. The threat of starvation recedes; we see abundance all around us; we lift our heads and look around and wonder why we're spending all our waking hours building some splendid monument whose meaning and worth remain unclear. The subversive thought can't help forming: Why are we working so hard?

We've all seen organized labor disputes where issues of principle are hammered out in the hard language of law and contracts. But we have also seen construction workers suddenly lay down their hammers as one and rest. We've seen slowdowns unadorned by rhetoric begin of their own accord when it becomes plain to all that they've been working too hard. When there's no meaning in what we're doing and there's no sense in continuing, some of us just stop working.

And secretly, we're all glad.

When I was in high school I worked in a furniture factory in Miami for a few weeks. My buddies and I were young and strong and at first the sheer physical challenge of lifting and carrying heavy sofas and cabinets was a pleasure. For weeks we worked and grew strong; our biceps swelled and our backs rippled. But one summer afternoon when we were carrying 100-pound armloads of fluorescent light ballasts out of a warehouse loft, the three of us looked at each other and in silent agreement we all sat down and rested. We spent an afternoon up there in the loft, just sitting, goldbricking; absent the lash, absent fear of starvation, absent a shimmering dream, we did the only reasonable thing: We took a recess.

What is "consumer confidence" anyway? Could a downturn in "consumer confidence" actually be an upswing in "consumer intelligence"? Could "consumer confidence" be rephrased as "consumer gullibility"? Could the improvident desire for goods and the willingness to sacrifice family time and leisure for them have as a natural counterbalance the tacit acknowledgement by the masses that enough is enough? Wouldn't that be a healthy thing? Wouldn't it show that we're not quite as soulless, bovine and bereft of dreams as we must sometimes appear to the captains of retail and the great machines of finance?

Wonderful things happen during recessions. Many of us lose our jobs of course and that is sometimes unimaginably painful. But also things slow down. Unemployed, we find ourselves with an idle afternoon and enough food to eat for the day and no bombers overhead and no knife at our throats and we must then ask: How shall I spend my time? How shall I spend this uninvited windfall of liberty? Shall I go to the library for free? Shall I sit down and sing a song to pass the time? Shall I visit my neighbor?

My wife and I are making more money than we've ever made before. We're rich now (at least I think so) but we've been poor, both as individuals before we met and in the early years of our marriage: without car, furniture or nice clothes, unable to go out to eat, stuck at home to amuse ourselves playing cards or Scrabble, taking walks, making love, talking. That's not so bad. Now we spend more money on our poodle than we do helping the poor. We're contented but the ice of good fortune we skate on is thin. We have to remind ourselves daily that we were born into the lap of an amoral empire and that the shiny new car we're driving is thanks as much to that as to our native talent and diligence.

Maybe leaders make a difference, too. In the absence of a charismatic boss regaling us with our own importance, we may forget why we're bent over in the sun with bags of cement on our backs, and we might just put down the load and say screw the schedule, screw the boss, there's no sense in all this.

At any rate, we've all been working too hard, too long, for too flimsy a purpose.

Come on, recession. Take me in your arms. Take me in your arms and rock me.

By Cary Tennis

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