Why (I believe) laziness isn’t a Thing

When I worked in community mental health, I travelled around Chicago’s South Side and met with clients in their homes. My clients were diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression. Many struggled with addiction, and many struggled with homelessness. Each of my clients received government assistance due to the severity of their mental illness; they were all unable to work at a typical job. My role was to help them function as best as they could within the community they lived in, so that they didn’t have to be hospitalized, or be admitted into a psychiatric hospital for the long term (as if that’s something that exists; in actuality any of these people would be left on the streets or cycle in and out of emergency rooms because long term psychiatric hospitals for people without funds were largely shut down due to inhumane conditions).

My own personal background includes white skin, a stable home, a graduate education, and the expectation that I will never be homeless or hungry. I brought this privilege to the people I worked with. Some days, when I was focused on my deep graduate school loans balanced against my 30K annual salary, I resented my clients. I felt used, confused, and abused. I wanted them to just do better, so I wouldn’t have to connect them to yet another homeless shelter, or talk them through their anger at being kicked out of their boarding room house. Just. Do. Better. But I knew those were only my bad days. Most of the time, I was in awe at how much work that went in to poverty.

The people I worked with are often thought of as lazy. If only they would just work harder, they wouldn’t be poor. American dream and bootstraps and all that. Quit being lazy and get a job! But I saw first hand how it’s just not that simple.

One client stands out, and I’m changing any identifying details here. She was a single mother with two boys, and she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her mid twenties. She had family supports and lived in subsidized housing. She also had dyslexia, but that wasn’t diagnosed until much too late in her life to afford her any help in school. Instead, she failed repeatedly and developed a deep sense of shame around the skills needed to succeed in school: organization, critical thinking, and following the rules.

This was a woman who learned to survive by working her ass off in service of goals that were not underwritten by the culture at large. She traded on her good looks and general street smarts, and she also learned to do hair. She had the sense not to tell me the details of any illegal activities she was involved in, but it was clear to me that she had found some creative ways to support her family. She was active. She was definitely busy.

The combination of her learning disability and the responsibilities of being a single mother made it nearly impossible for her to hold a steady job, though I did witness her get hired at more than one in the 2 years I worked with her. But the thing that took the most time and energy? Maintaining her public assistance. I stood with this woman on so many lines between social security and Medicaid, almost always to be told that she would need to fill out some other paperwork and return another day. She received letters in the mail that contradicted what she was told in the office. Phone numbers often went nowhere.

I would have given up if I were her. But she tapped into every resource that had an immediate return on her investment, myself included. And she discarded any potential resource that appeared a waste of time, education included. Efforts at education had only failed her in the past so she no longer took the time to pursue that goal. It wasn’t laziness that kept her from success, it was common sense about what was most important. Her values didn’t line up with mine; I believe wholeheartedly in the power of education and how it can lift people from poverty. But I can’t argue with the logic of getting paid in whatever way is available rather than going to GED classes that may or may not lead to a better life.

I saw this sort of story play out time and time again. The man with alcoholism who spent every day buried in anxiety about leaving his house, terrified that as a tall black man he would intimidate someone on the street. So focused was he on others’ comfort level around him that he figured his best solution was to just stay home and drink. It looked lazy from a traditional construction of the idea, and he told me nearly every week that he was lazy. But that man was working terribly hard at staying alive every day.

At some point along the line in my work with clients, I noticed myself bristle at the word ‘lazy,’ just like I bristle at the word ‘failure.’ So when I stumbled upon Dr. Devon Price’s work on this very concept, I dug in. Dr. Price (pronouns are they/them), a social psychologist, recently published a book called Laziness Doesn’t Exist, and they frame the idea of laziness as a cultural concept with roots in Puritanism. They discuss how we have been so culturally conditioned to equate productivity with moral virtue that we don’t even realize it’s the water we swim in. From their framework, saying ‘no’ to any sort of action is inherently looked down upon, and this bleeds even into sexuality where the word ‘no’ is expected to come with an explanation. (Note: “No” is a complete and full sentence, and never needs an explanation).

Dr. Price’s contention is that every action is goal directed, even if society at large either doesn’t understand or doesn’t support the goal. In fact, the goal may even end up destroying the person in the longer term, such as when a person works dangerously hard at procuring their next hit of heroin. But no one is ever lazy, and it is not a judgment that anyone has a right to make.

My client base now is different from my caseload at the community mental health agency. I now work with a substantial number of women who are are desperately trying to perform at full time corporate jobs while also showing up completely in their roles as mothers. While I am less likely to hear any of my current clients call herself “lazy,” the implication is still there. There must be something she can do, some way she can be better, so that she can effectively work 70 hours a week at her job, spend quality time with her children, get dinner on the table, work out, meditate, and keep a beautiful house. And she needs to do all of this without feeling stressed out about it. If she is not able to accomplish all of this, it is because of a failing on her part; there must be some way to make this work.

If only she weren’t so lazy.

I love the idea that laziness doesn’t exist, and I’m so grateful to Dr. Price for writing their book and providing their frame for this conversation. I’ve seen the importance of this idea show up in clients from all walks of life. The shame that can pervade when someone believes that they are not delivering enough, that they are not doing enough, that nothing is ever enough. The truth is that the culture needs to shift, so that there is room for people to pursue personal goals without a sense of shame.

I will continue to offer strategies to cope with the stress of this life, and I will preach the gospel of self care and self compassion as ways of life rather than items on a to do list. But please know that no amount of work/life balance can stand up in the face of the systemic challenges that we face. If you truly think of yourself as lazy, please consider what you gain by adopting this particular self deprecating label. Consider also what you spend your time on; it may be that activities of daily living are draining your energy because you’re living through a global pandemic and your cortisol levels are through the roof, making sleep nearly impossible which means your executive functions are depleted. Just sayin.

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