Before America gave the world Jazz, coca-cola and mass production, we invented extra points for effort. Many of our early forebears adhered to Calvinism, a strain of Protestantism that is best characterized as a total rejection of Billy Joel’s “I Love You Just the Way You Are.” In fact, Calvinists did not have bar mitzvahs precisely because the Talmud prescribes that the ballad be played there. True story. Look it up.
Approval is the currency of Calvinism. And approval does not derive from our mere existence, nor from our sanctity as god’s children. Approval is won by work, and lost by sloth. Happiness is not its own reward; fatigue is a greater sign of grace. Calvinists do not follow the Grateful Dead.
Calvinists do not “chill.”
I have been labeled the world’s most fanatical Calvinist Jew. I have bowed at the altar of work every day since I was 12.
The Calvinist church in America lives on in Northwest DC, northern Chicagoland, New York City, and one thousand other places where achievement is virtue. It lives on in large law firms, and in investment houses. On farms and in fashion. The Calvinist tradition serves up one venti half-caff double-cup extra hot non-fat two splenda skinny vanilla latte worth of ulcers, fatigue, and depression to its proud adherents every day. We work hard here at Whitey, Oldman, and Starched LLP.
It lives on in birthing classes and play groups. And in the minds of people who were Calvinists before they were parents, it lives in the form of our sense of obligation to parent the living daylights out of Seamus and Desytyn.
It breeds contempt, which goes a little something like this: a group of 40-something women convene in Starbucks, wearing tasteful yoga clothes and smiling. Their children are presumably off to school, or enjoying a few hours with a nanny, playgroup, or relative. The women chat. Their children are not at the top of the conversation.
Tsk, tsk, tsk. If you are lucky enough to stay at home, you should be focused on your children. Those women aren’t sacrificing for their kids. They’re just at home to relax and get out of working. Those women aren’t doing the “hardest and most important job in the world.” They are playing. I’ve read this one million times heard it even more, and thought it too much.
Not as much as “so when is my acne going to clear up and will I be uncool until I die?” But some.
And it also goes like this: After my child goes to school, I complete two hours of work, which I send to a client. While awaiting the client’s feedback, I walk to the frozen yogurt joint and get a green tea smoothie with mangoes and strawberries. No sooner does the first cool taste enter my mouth (sensuality at 11am on Monday, the horror), when I look around. I am not contributing my labor to the GDP. I am not serving anyone’s civil rights nor putting anything into our retirement account.
I am out taking a pleasant walk on a weekday. That means that I’m not self-employed, but self-indulgent. And I’m not even pretty and in shape! The GDP police must be after me. They know that I am earning less and sometimes doing less than at my high-powered job. What will they say? The mommy police might be after me too. I have no social skills, no playgroup, very little of that important attention to wellness and community involvement that keeps them going through PTA meetings and raising three kids. I don’t deserve this smoothie. I drink it anyway.
Within a few hours, our children return and hug us. They are happy, properly educated, overwhelmed with joy to see us. And within a few hours, my client gets back to me— with more work that I’ll take up after my daughter’s bedtime. Within a week or so, I’ll get a check from my clients. We’ll pay the mortgage, put money into the college account, and we’ll save for that boat that we plan to use for our escape in 25 years.
Dinner gets to the table. People follow it. Everyone is okay. The judges never materialize, and the medal ceremony never happens. My morning walk has gone unnoticed by The Authorities. Life is peaceful. Broccoli is rejected. Night falls, child sleeps, and life proceeds.
Turns out that there is a fair bit of daylight between doing enough and never taking a break. I can earn enough even without earning what I used to.
Ladies in Starbucks, I’ve projected my Parental Calvinism onto you. My first instinct was to scoff at your free hour and your happiness in each other – right before flogging myself. I have no idea what you did after your break. I don’t know whether your husbands and partners deserve you, what your kids are like, who you are. I don’t know how easy or difficult your life is. And if I were remotely rational, I would admire everyone who manages to get her responsibilities done and still get to meet up with a friend in the morning. It is crazy to judge someone for working out a way to be happy in this world. As crazy as it is to waste a perfectly good smoothie on self-loathing.
On days like this, I know that I’m not ready to sell my stock in approval, but I need to try.
Fellow Calvinists: there is no medal ceremony. The Authorities aren’t after us. And you look really pretty today.