I’ve lately been thinking that maybe Catholics have the right idea. Not that they actually do, or that I am so curious about the question that I would seriously consider becoming one. No, I know myself better than that; I recognize right up front that, if I were a Catholic, I would probably think that maybe the Jews have the right idea; and if I were a Jew, I’d be contemplating Islam.
So to save time, I’ll stay a Protestant; and to be really dutiful about it, I’ll protest that the Protestant work ethic is a great thing, except when it’s not. This was the part that I thought maybe the Catholics knew better: the Irish Catholics, with their pubs and their clans; the Italian Catholics, with their extended families and bonhomie; the French and Polish Catholics, who after all those wars can still bring themselves to speak to the Germans and the Russians as if to say, aw, forget about it, let’s move on; and the Mexican Catholics, who toil away out there in the killing heat until you just know they’ll be the lords of the food supply someday, when the greenhouse world of Mad Max really kicks in and the Mexicans are the only ones left who can stand to spend the summertime farming.
All of which could provoke a reasonable person to ask, hey, what about the Mexican work ethic? But that’s not the point. The point is, leaving aside the Catholics of the real world, if necessary, and focusing here on the Catholics of my imagination, I think we can say without a moment’s hesitation that these are people who know what life’s all about. Anybody who, as a whole social class, can hold their families together in times like these, well, those are the people who have the huge weddings and the massive family reunions and the village festivities that are actually kind of fun even with no monster trucks battling it out head to head. Think about it: on St. Patrick’s Day, the whole world (or at least the parts thereof containing a quorum of Irishmen) goes out and has a parade. What, exactly, does the world do on Martin Luther Day?
It might help if Luther were a saint, but, see, that’s part of the problem. Who has time for saints when there’s so much work to be done? Isn’t it sufficient if we say a prayer for his soul — just kidding; this is not the Protestant way — and get back to business? The black people say no, that’s not how you treat a great man, at least you oughta name a kid after him; and so Luther, by a stroke of luck, lives on peripherally, in our imaginations, on the third Monday of each January, despite his paucity of saintism, thanks to the adoption of his moniker by a race of people whom he might well have considered worse than Jews and Catholics if he’d been forced to live within a thousand miles of them. Isn’t life ironic? It is, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
For the moment, let’s just observe that, regardless of your religion, the work ethic can be a life-sapping, grinding blight that cannibalizes even its greatest people until they’re nothing but ciphers and bones. This is no way to treat a life. But we don’t need to hear that; we know it already, and therefore we have carved out a True Exception from the annual calendar, when all is bliss throughout our extended family and the world at large. Christmas, it’s called. Don’t tell us we don’t know how to get along with our fellow man, with his strange odors and bizarre ideas. We do, for that one day, which may be as long as we can stand to put our minds to it; and we can make it so colorful and gay that even those people who have families but lack a work ethic can tell themselves that it’ll be OK, they’ll be happy too if they switch over to this world of nonstop toil, because it’s not nonstop at all, not when we can plainly see that even the Denny’s Restaurants are forced to lock their doors for that one evening-to-morning genesis of life afresh.
Ah, but this is a pathetic concept of the good life, this existence in which the company of joyful people is pared back to its utter minimum and doled out like duck sauce for a meager 36 hours, not counting hours of sleep and moments of supreme irritation that erupt like nose zits, popping out on prom night the instant you turn your face from the mirror. Dammit! Why can’t people be fun and lighthearted, for a lousy one day per year? If we could just get some cooperation from everyone else, maybe we could recover our old fun selves too.
Otherwise, given the necessity of coping with life as a series of Mondays, we find that we can indeed cope; and in this spirit we develop a world in which it eventually becomes rather difficult to put the family first. Oh, sure, we all do, in the sense that we leave them every day in order to make money so we can afford to be back with them, briefly, afterwards, in some self-respecting capacity; but any visitor from a primeval village would look around your house and ask, in a quiet tone, after a moment’s hesitation, how long it’s been since all the other members of your family died. We realize, of course, that this savage would be the victim of his own inability to enjoy the refined tastes of our advanced civilization; but on this one aspect of the matter we would have to grant him an acknowledgement that, really, he knew more than we ever will about enjoying life with his family.
Written August 11, 2001