It’s Sunday evening as I write this, and I can feel the constraint of Monday closing in on me. What am I afraid I’m going to lose? My free time? The unencumbered openness of an unscheduled day? A sense of possibility?
For those of us who operate on a Monday through Friday schedule of some kind, maybe the answer is obvious: We give up our free time — our free selves — and reenter the world of work, school, and outside demands. If it’s true that many of us are “living for the weekend,” then Monday, in a sense, represents the death of something essential.
One of my favorite memes is a picture of critical theorist Slavoj Žižek framed by the words “You don’t hate Mondays. You hate capitalism.” It’s not likely this quote really comes from Žižek, but its meaning resonates regardless.
I’m not too fond of capitalism, but even those who champion it can relate to the sense of dread that comes on a Sunday evening. Mondays are (traditionally) when we nosedive back into the workday, into the commute, into the hustle that drives so much of our economy. Mondays aren’t just a reminder we have to spend much of our lives working at jobs we might not feel like going to—they can be a reminder of the dreams we gave up, the debts we’re working to pay off, the insufficiency we feel about our paychecks, and the repetitiveness of daily life that, for some of us, might feel like futility.
But to say we hate Mondays only because of capitalism is too easy. If we lived under a different economic system, one where the work week still existed and began on Mondays, would the dread still remain? Probably. Because working is about more than just making money and participating in the economy. Work is also a large part of how we participate in society.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt defines three distinct ways humans participate in the world: labor, work, and action.
Finding space for creative, generative action can seem impossible in the midst of so many requirements and expectations.
According to Arendt, labor covers the different biological processes through which we produce the things we need to survive, such as growing and preparing food or bearing and raising children.
Work refers to what we do and make to construct an artificial world of things. We might work to produce those things directly—say, by building skyscrapers or manufacturing paper towels. Or we might participate in their production indirectly by shipping engine parts, digging up rare metals, or handing out flyers on a street corner.
Action, however, describes activities and speech that occur between people, such as politics or communication. It is through action that we “disclose ourselves” to each other. By Arendt’s definition, action is not simply any form of behavior or movement. Action represents the deeds that show who we truly are.
Action, in other words, requires some degree of freedom. To bring ourselves into the world—to act freely—we must have space to act. In the marketplace of modern employment, many of us do not have much of this space. When we accept a job, we also accept a lot of terms that condition what we are allowed to say and do on the job. This is perhaps most clearly seen in positions with a high degree of automation. In Amazon warehouses, for example, employees receive directions from electronic monitors and can be penalized for talking to coworkers or stepping away to get a drink of water.
Limits on freedom can also be found in white-collar and service positions, where high demands limit truly independent thinking, and where a specific work culture can become pressure to conform attitudes and politics with the mainstream. As a public school teacher, I was constantly aware of the limits around my role, not only in terms of how I shared my own thoughts and opinions but how I used instructional time. The pressure to teach a high quantity of content and to raise student performance meant that every moment in the classroom needed to be justified. Finding space for creative, generative action can seem impossible in the midst of so many requirements and expectations.
Mondays nudge us to ask: In how much of this life am I truly free?
In contrast to all the shoulds and musts of the work week, the weekend becomes a haven for grabbing time to become ourselves. If we can’t be creative at work, we think, we’ll find ways to express our creativity in our time off. The weekend becomes freedom not only from work, but freedom into a sense of who we are.
But is that really how weekends really feel?
If we’re so accustomed to doing what others expect and contract us to do that we feel alienated from our creative agency, we may look for ways to forget or dull that agency. Even on weekends, we avoid ourselves. We’re so used to being someone else, it’s hard for us to be us. So we escape into pleasures. We numb ourselves with drugs, Netflix, or the newest Marvel movie. We’re “busy,” we have “plans.” We hop brunch with friends to shopping at the mall to watching a ballgame with family. We fill time with so many activities that we forget how controlled our lives truly are.
But in the precious moments when we do go and say and act how we want, we suspend the rules of the game. We become ourselves, finally.
Perhaps we don’t really hate Mondays. What we really hate, maybe, is the nagging sensation that we are not fully present in our own lives. Mondays nudge us to ask: In how much of this life am I truly free?