How unsurprised I was, and yet how dispirited, to read of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s key involvement in the social media site’s latest political dust-up. Though Sandberg has denied it, the New York Times reported last week that she was a critical force in concealing Facebook’s role in the spread of false information during the 2016 presidential election. It makes sense that Sandberg would do something like that — not in a moral way but simply as a matter of stated habit. She wrote the book on leaning in, a frenetic philosophy of work interpreted by the strange tween-and-teen volume “Girl CEO” as a clarion call to “give it all you’ve got.” The trouble with giving it all you’ve got is that eventually you’ll have nothing left.
When work becomes life and life becomes work, the good of whatever concern you happen to serve blurs — disastrously, in Sandberg’s case — with your own good and what is actually good. And moral disorder is only one foul consequence of leaning in. Consider the loss of time devoted to one’s family, friends, personal projects and spiritual life, and the perversion of priorities that arises when life decisions such as childbirth and marriage revolve more around corporate policies than individual desires. All in all, it seems better to lean out — not to quit working altogether but to remand work to its proper place: on the boring flanks of feasts.
Long before the modern age and the rise of capital, the medieval world — with some inspiration from antiquity — indulged in frequent feast days. They honored the saints and the events of the Christian liturgical calendar, and marked baptisms, funerals, pilgrimages and other occasions with a hearty laying down of work.
For the medievals, the food and festivities associated with feasting were important, but perhaps the most distinctive aspect of a well-observed feast was the “moratorium on everyday life” — that is, the temporary abandonment of work and its whole profane penumbra. Medievals could expect, all told, to feast for whole months out of the year , and indeed reckoned time relative to the spacing of the year’s feasts. These were the beloved days, and more important, the significant days — the ones on which real and beautiful things were exalted, and on which the obnoxious but necessary things were put aside.
Thanksgiving may be the only bona fide American feast day. Every other holiday has some other activity or occasion to recommend it, but Thanksgiving is a feast to celebrate feasting and to express gratitude for everything that can’t be properly commodified: family, friendship, the autumn season. The meaning of it may be less distinct than your average medieval feast, but the sense that it’s about something better and truer than the ordinary grind of work is what lends it its emotional depth (and what makes the travesty of workers forced to labor on the holiday so despicable ).
Of course, there’s always some tension that comes with Thanksgiving. There is the stress of travel; the pressure of irritating family dynamics — which, to trust the guides and articles on arguing with relatives, seems especially manifest on Thanksgiving, with whole-family get-togethers being otherwise rare; and the difficulty of peeling away from school or work, where something is always left unfinished and something else always looms ahead.
But to my mind, all that means we could use more experience feasting, not less. Would that there were 100 days out of the year that we turned away from things that don’t matter and embraced the things that do — which doesn’t mean that the things that are real and lasting are necessarily pleasurable, only that they’re authentic and non-commodified. For their celebration of these things, feasts are unlike anything else in modern life, and all the more precious.
So lean out, or rather lean back, into something cozy and comfortable, and feast. All the toil in the world will still be waiting when the feast day ends. But Thanksgiving is yours; Thanksgiving is for you.