The Life of Riley

The Life of Riley

This last week I told two people that at 53 years old I am “living the life of Riley.” Neither of them knew the expression, which made me wonder if it’s one of those fragments of my growing up in the west, or, more likely, of my age AND of growing up on the Canadian prairies.

No one has ever defined “living the life of Riley” for me, but I’ve always thought it meant doing what one pleases, and being completely pleased with what one is doing. An example might be Tom Sawyer, floating down the river with Huck Finn on an adventure, or the main character of the movie “Into the Wild,” just enjoying the view as he criss-crosses the United States on his epic adventure: canoeing, reading, working only as needed, and meeting new people all along the way.

Whether the expression originates with an American TV show from the 1950s or from the Irish O’Reilly clan much earlier, the problem with the “life of Riley” as the expression is used now, can be that it means one is doing everything except what one should. In other words, the suspicion is that a person who lives the life of Riley is avoiding responsibilities.

But does it have to mean that? It might never be possible to line up one’s pleasures and one’s responsibilities entirely (some tasks are just chores, no matter how you dress them up), but when you are lucky enough to find jobs to do that you enjoy anyway, it seems to me that you can avoid the kind of drudgery we often associate with what we do.

I’ve been reading a book called “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt. Among the many, many things he says, the author discusses how most jobs – even those we usually consider dead-end or lacking value – can take on meaning when those who do them are allowed a say in setting the parameters and goals of the job, and in working with a team of others in doing it. Haidt calls it “self-direction”. The hospital orderly who does what most consider the menial tasks of cleaning bedpans and lifting patients, he says, if she is made to feel part of the overall team of healers and care-givers (which in fact, she is) and if others in the team are encouraged to see her this way, can have tremendous job satisfaction in knowing and being affirmed that she is doing a noble thing.

Somehow, at this point in my life, I have found myself in this situation. Being a part-time, contract lecturer at the university, I am forced into the position, often, where “my” classes are taken away, and in order to work I am obligated to design new ones. What seems a tremendous and annoying chore to others I’ve described this to, is for me, really a blessing in disguise. By having to design new classes I not only set my own parameters for teaching and for student success (within the overall expectations of the university). I also get a chance to exercise one of the qualities in myself that I value most: creativity. And the department, in turn, values these creative new offerings, so as part of the teaching team my work is then validated.

Likewise in the parish: as a part-time minister I have a flexibility that is simply not there in most positions. If there is a death in the parish or an emergency of some sort, of course I have to respond. But much of my time is open-ended: I can call a family to visit, I can write an article about the parish for a church or Finnish publication, or I can go and clean the office…..it’s entirely up to me.

Of course this kind of life and lifestyle is privileged. Most of the world does not have this chance to choose how they earn a living. The Bangladeshi worker in bare feet on a factory floor or breaking down old ships in inhumane and poisonous conditions, or the many many unfortunates in the world (even, to our shame, in Canada) who live and work in real enslavement dream of the basics of safety and freedom. Fulfillment is an extra. We owe them justice.

But even so I don’t believe that the “life of Reilly” requires a lot of money. And in my case, it only comes in exchange for a certain insecurity (contract-work) as well.

Anyway, I feel very, very fortunate. My time is flexible, I earn much more than enough for the basics, I have traveled the world over giving papers and presentations for the university and the church, and those natural characteristics I value in myself, the things at which I am best – coming up with new ideas, expressing myself, communicating with others, affirming and celebrating social groups, finding wonder in the world – I get to do not only at work, but FOR work! How very blessed it is.

I’m thankful for this ‘life of Riley.’
July 16, 2012

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