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Herb Rothschild Jr.: 'I'm busier than ever' (not really)

When Deborah and I ask each other what’s on our agendas for the next day, if either of us happens to have a good bit to do, the other is likely to say, “You’re busier than ever.” It’s a joke we share. It derives from the frequency with which retired people claim they’re busier than ever. That’s almost never true — it certainly isn’t true of my life, nor would I want it to be.

When we think of our Puritan legacy, we tend to think of sexual prudishness. Actually, Puritans weren’t distinctively prudish, and there’s hardly a vestige of it in our sex-drenched culture. What Puritans distinctively were were busy. Ben Jonson satirized that trait in Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a character in his marvelous comedy “Bartholomew Fair” (1614).

The secularized expression of the trait was a fear of being thought lazy. As is often the case, that fear got projected out onto others, especially non-Anglos. But busyness had its root in Calvinist theology (Puritans were English Calvinists). It was a response to the doctrine that humans could do nothing to earn salvation — God had chosen the elect and the damned before the beginning of time.

That response seems counter-intuitive. Why make any effort if it won’t be rewarded? Roman Catholic disputants against Calvin often leveled the charge that unless our salvation depends on our good works, people will revel in sin. But Calvin responded (and the lives of his followers bore him out) that the willingness to act well only if paid for doing so manifests an essential corruption of the will at odds with a proper disposition toward God/goodness. Distasteful as the doctrine of predestination may seem, it was key to elevating ordinary religious practice from the mentality of children (the Heavenly Father will give you candy if you’re good and spank you if you’re bad) to that of adults.

Here’s why Calvinists were a busy people: They couldn’t earn their salvation, but they could act as if they were included among the elect. That meant conforming their wills to the will of God. Collectively, they tried to build godly societies in their time and place. Individually, they sought to discern God’s particular will for them (their callings, their vocations) in that project. And so it was that Calvinism appealed to the most educated and active people in a world changing from the medieval to the modern, from isolated agricultural communities to dynamic urban life. Calvinists became a major political force in Switzerland, Holland, France, England and British North America because they thought that what they were doing was fraught with significance.

I see no value in busyness simply to fill the time. Better to study, to meditate, to pray, to marvel at the beauties both nature and humans have created. In the Middle Ages the contemplative life took priority over the active life; the modern world reversed that priority. By now we should understand that our activities and our passivities are equally significant.

Nonetheless, there’s work to be done, work the market won’t valorize but work that’s essential to creating just and caring communities. And who is better positioned to do that work than retirees? Just when the majority of women began entering the paid workforce and left a vacancy in the volunteer sector, we began living longer and healthier lives. We’ve been granted years of freedom from necessary toil, and almost anything is better than daytime TV.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.