National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 26, 2003

Fighting the tiny Calvinist inside me


How the tiny Calvinist crawled inside my brain, I don’t know. But I’ve been arguing with him for years now. He is convinced that all chores must be completed before any pleasurable interlude, to wit, a Sunday-afternoon nap. He does not understand the extra time and expense required to pair one’s favorite snack with the perfect imported ale or Jamaican ginger beer, chilled and served in a frosty pilsner. He trembles at the specter of me lolling about in a bathrobe all day, taking two hours to read the newspaper, then throwing on a soft, torn pair of jeans and going to a movie, deadlines be damned.

I have placated the tiny Calvinist for decades now, and my bargains with him take place well below conscious awareness. I do not think of his thin, pressed lips when I grab leftovers from the fridge and dutifully pour a glass of milk, because we must drink it up before it sours. I do not think of his long thin waggling finger when I wash the floor, throw in a load of laundry, do some research for work, clean the bathroom, and glance with raw envy at the snoring dog stretched out on the sofa in the darkened living room.

Planned pleasures, I can allow myself. Out with friends for dinner, I savor every morsel; on vacation, I soak up fun like a crazed teenager. But left to my own devices, I have a hard time spontaneously choosing self-indulgence. I fear a slippery slope: Lie down for a nap and I might never arise to make dinner; ignore the weeds in the garden and it will be a kudzu jungle by the time I can bring myself to return.

Somehow the virtuous choice always comes easier.

Which makes me think the real virtue might lie elsewhere.

I have come to a startling realization. It took 21 years of formal education and 20 years of work experience, but I have finally realized that I get more done -- the work goes more smoothly, the ideas fly higher -- when I sneak deliberate periods of pleasure and relaxation into my tiny Calvinist’s schedule. Half an hour savoring an exquisite lunch on the sun porch and I’m ready to double-dig the herb garden. A nap in the hammock and I’ll gladly research the history of schizophrenia.

This is, after all, the meaning of Sabbath. Sacred rest, deliberate idleness, renewal. Until now, I interpreted Sabbath as a day of obligatory church attendance followed by grocery shopping, mopping the kitchen floor, fixing a big dinner and ironing. But a friend who grew up on a farm in Ohio reminded me that her father, who avoided church religiously, understood the Sabbath more deeply than any of us, because he knew how to let a field lie fallow in the seventh year, to renew the earth.

Now I wonder why I listened for so long to the shriveled little preacher in my head. Can I blame this one on childhood? Probably not. My mom got all the housework done in a burst of nervous energy, but she raced through it precisely so we’d have time to rent movies or play tennis or go shopping. She was, and still is, a lot of fun.

I am not fun.

I am driven by some weird compulsion to check chores and projects off a list. I bring the requisite baked goods and giveaway items to church because it is easier than feeling guilty about it later. I soak up free time by accepting freelance jobs because the money is nice, the work is interesting and the experience is good for me.

The best moments in our marriage have been the times that, exhausted by some monumental home-improvement project, we threw ourselves down on the bed and lay, limbs twined, talking idly about nothing, until we fell asleep, waking at bedtime. Or the times Andrew called me to come outside and look at the full moon, and we stood there long past brush-and-floss time, absorbing the night sky’s secrets.

The pattern suggests that my problem lies not in parental conditioning but in the mousetrap of guilty conscience. I am particularly outraged by friends who manage to take wonderful trips, rent foreign movies, go to art openings, throw parties, watch silly TV shows and take naps, yet somehow their houses are always clean enough, they get promotions at work and they keep up with all their friends. Me, I make lame excuses to every dismissible invitation and stay home to Get Things Done.

Do I think God’s going to swoop me up for the rapture before I get the basement reorganized? Or -- scarier -- do I think that I somehow don’t deserve to have fun, that I’m special in some masochistic way, and must do whatever I am capable of doing at every moment?

In grade school, having fun was usually synonymous with getting into trouble, getting dirty, staying out past curfew. As a teenager, fun was either dangerous or addictive or made you pregnant. Now, I am old enough to identify pleasures that, taken in moderation, remain pleasurable.

But I am not wise enough to attach importance to them.

The Talmud says we shall be called to account for all the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy. The Roman Catholic catechism never mentioned pleasure at all. Yet when I think about the healthiest nuns and priests I know, the happiest couples, the sanest families, they are all people who know how to play. They describe Thai restaurants and jazz concerts and new movies with relish; they welcome invitations, and do not insult friends with a recounting of how busy they are.

When they see a slippery slope, they slide gleefully to the bottom and run back up to do it all again.

Their pleasure is pure.

Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 2003

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