“Vinnan göfgar manninn” is a prominent phrase in the Icelandic language. It means that work gives dignity to man.
There is indeed truth to the wisdom implied but there is more to life than being a hard worker. Work is a means to income, income we all need in a world in which the economy is built on the concept of money.
But there is more to life than hard work and rise to professional glory. As a young woman in Paris, I learned to appreciate the simple things in life, the leisurely moments during which our only duty is to live life to the fullest and enjoy the time we have with the people in our lives.
When the sun came out, I put aside my course books, picked up my Canon and walked along the banks of the Seine to the Marais, Île Saint Louis, and all my favorite arrondissements for the sheer joy of belonging in a moment.
I took myself out to dinners with my novel of choice, and for dessert I had an Italian amaretto gelato. My life was balanced and I was happy.
I am still happy. After a few mistakes along the way, that is, mistakes involving working in excess that resulted in extreme fatigue, I learned my lesson.
Still, I continued to feel guilty for not writing my thesis while working full time and going to the gym four to five times a week. It seemed that even though all this was going to make me exhausted, it was somehow my duty to do it all and do it all exceptionally well.
Following an early cancer diagnosis in my circle of people, I decided to stop feeling guilty for not pushing myself to the very extremes.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with hard work. But there is a time and place for work. Some of our Scandinavian neighbors have begun experimenting with shorter workdays, and if memory serves me right, referenced studies that revealed a shorter workday by no means reduces performance.
I suspect there is truth to it. With a shorter workday, an employee works harder while at work and finishes the tasks at hand. After work, it is still possible to run errands or just go home and enjoy the rest of the day.
There have been debates and discussion about whether this is worth trying in Iceland. One of the arguments against shortening the workday is that very phrase: that work gives dignity to man, that it gives purpose to life.
In my own circle of people, I know of a few over-achievers. I am proud of them all, but I worry too. They are as wonderful and good without their many accomplishments as they are with them.
In other words, I do not believe definitively in the overt interpretation Icelandic society sometimes places on the phrase.
Many Icelanders have more than one job, some to make ends meet (and that to me says enough about just how low the minimum wage is in Iceland), while others work to either pursue a passion or simple make more money.
For those who work on passion alone, working more hours than is necessary to make a decent living is perhaps understandable. But I admit that I don’t understand the concept of working extra hard as a rule. As the exception, yes, I can indeed.
I am by no means a lazy worker. I put in my hours and do the very best job for the company that employs me, and I enjoy the challenges and the successes equally.
But I consider it to be just as important to live well in my leisure time. It is as much my duty as it is to be a diligent worker. And thankfully, more and more businesses and Icelanders themselves are beginning to understand the importance of keeping a good balance between work and leisure.
But it doesn’t change the fact that we still only compliment those who work extra hard and are successful in the professional sense.
Never have I heard anyone compliment someone for making ample time for spending an afternoon reading for joy or simply glowing with happiness for no obvious reason.
The individual who was diagnosed with cancer told me that one of the regrets in life is working too much and spending too little time with the people that matter.
Wouldn’t it be nice if being happy and to lead a happy life was as much of a virtue as is hard work. Is there really no virtue in living well?
On this day, Bastille Day, why not celebrate the French way of life.
Júlíana Björnsdóttir – firstname.lastname@example.org