Look, here’s the point: I have more than a couple of jobs, but I limit what I discuss to two, so we don’t have to waste time with the “you’re a freak” discussion. I often hear people talk of: “putting in long hours”. As opposed to what? I was going to work anyway. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing as work. People talk of “work-life balance” but why does work need to be balanced? Work *is* life. Work is balance. “Work and play?” Work is the way that I play. People say, “You do what you have to, so you can do what you want to do.” But work *is* what I want to do. I don’t get it.
Work is supposed to be the source of meaning. That’s the whole point of this blog. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing as work. It’s worth, in other words, taking seriously, making the work of your hands, the work of your life. And whatever isn’t worth that much, you set it down for what is.
A fundamentalist lecturer who spoke extensively about work has said “the good things are the enemies of the best things, if only for lack of time”. We have so little time, so little life left to us in our mortality, to establish what it is we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. If you’re reading this and you’re over 30, your life is half over, statistically. Maybe you’re optimistic – ok, so even if you’re life is 1/3 over, and you’ve only got 2/3 left, if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, then when?
I used to teach a class in which I’d begin with a bonding exercise – ask each participant to answer a seemingly simple question: If we paid all your bills, alleviated all your debts, met all your obligations, and gave you the car you want, the home you want, the title you want, etc. – what would you do with the rest of your life? The goal was to bypass some of the social armor we put on, the defensiveness of new environments, and coming from diverse backgrounds, and see a little bit of the person in each other, just a little beyond the veil. And you see it, because you see in each person the universal search for meaning – meaning that can be understood in the context of work.
But it’s amazing how few people spoke of something resembling work. Some spoke of traveling or of learning/studying (both of which represent the search for meaning) – a small minority spoke of engaging in some particular profession or launching a business. The exercise proceeds by asking the question “why” until you get at the reason behind the reason (not just a restatement of the original). Suffice it to say that answers broke down (without people saying it explicitly) into either “I have no idea what my life means, so I would search for meaning” or “I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, and it’s work”. The final question – either way – was, “So, even given limited resources and time, what steps are you taking, on a constant or daily basis, in that direction?”
The goal was to accomplish a bit of inthinking – thinking together about a shared problem that’s uniquely held by each participant. The result is the creation of a much more effective learning environment, because further activity becomes attitudinally focused around the mutual acquisition of meaning that work constitutes in the first place. In short, this implied bond quickly created more cohesive work groups with a discreet understanding of what our work actually is. Minds were open to finding meaning through the work we were bound to do together. People still come up to me in crowds and tell me the turning point in their attitudes about their work was those classes. Those were sales classes too – full of professional skeptics. It’s not me, though – work really can be like that.
The answers to that last question, though – “what are you doing to go in that direction now?”, ranged from “You’re right. I will (or I am)” to the challenge, “What about you? Are you doing what you’re meant to do?” – to which I would always answer categorically “yes”. And indeed I was. And without belaboring the details, that’s still true. As much as I can, and I am trying to make more “can”. What I can’t bring myself to do is just whittle away the hours. Even reading a book is work. The best quotation on reading I’ve read is “When you read, make to do lists instead of notes – if you can’t do that, you’re reading the wrong books.”
Your work is holistic – it involves the whole person – what you put in and what you put out. Your work, the work of your life, the work of your hands, is too important to leave to the merely adequate, to a placeholder, to be in fact anything other than the source of meaning in your life. Even in religion, the word “liturgy” (the Christian worship service) means “the work of the people”. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth taking quite seriously. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing as work.
In fact, Christianity provides a very useful fork for attitudes about work: one attitude views work as a curse – a kind of necessary evil – a blight upon one’s life that one should rather escape if one can. This view has generated a generation of slackers – decades, in fact, of drop-outs, and beatniks on the Kerouak model. Work, in this experience, is the source of frustration, not the locus of joy, much less the means of salvation. And this is often thought to be the Christian model.
Historically, it is anything but. For one thing, the Christian view is that, when God pronounces a curse, it is an act of love, which is actually designed for the salvation of the individual – for union with God, rather than alienation from God and all things. It is saving man by putting a boundary on his despair (the opposite of meaning). The idea of a curse in the occult sense of a malevolent force of destruction is foreign to Christian tradition. Secondly, the tradition is that all things blighted with death – with frailty and frustration – all things deprived or distorted of meaning – are being redeemed, deified, transformed into vessels of meaning, conveyors of salvation. Work, in the Christian view, while it is uncomfortable because of the death inflicted on mankind and the world, is meant to be a means of overcoming death. In fact, without one’s work, one cannot be saved, according to the Christian gospels. If one reads the parables of the talents and of the minas and of the vineyard and the other Christian teachings on the mystery of work, it is a primary means of union with God. The alternative is “weeping, outer darkness, and gnashing of teeth” – that’s despair.
A common misconception is that the Christian scriptures say that work is a curse. Far from it; they say that the ground is cursed – the environment, the context of work – not work itself.
Cursed is the ground because of you, In sorrow you shall eat of it all your days. It will bring forth thorns and thistles, and you shall eat the grain of the field: by the sweat of your brow you will get your bread, unil you return to the ground, for you were taken from it. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In fact, the curse is that things will frustrate your work (e.g. “thorns and thistles”) – the implication is that work itself is a holy thing confronted by disaster which it and we must overcome for rightful ends. We’re not much on proof texts here, but that’s what the words actually say and that’s the attitude that Christian tradition actually preserves, pop-religion aside. Keep in mind that the first thing God said to man was to work- the work of rulership over the earth jointly with the work of tending and protecting and replenishing the earth and making it peaceful:
And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed-bearing fruit; to you it shall be for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth that lives, I have given every green plant for food”. And it was so. And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. . . . And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to tend it and to keep it.
It’s interesting that the very next thing God said to man was to fast, – it was a rule – to not eat up all the earth, or eat even of everything in it, even if man could consume it all, and even if it was designed as food, and even if it was in his care; but the implications of that is a different discussion for a different venue. We’ll stay with work. If you look closely at the Christian telling, work is the life of paradise, and the very deprivation of meaning from work, which came when Death fell upon it, is the very thing from which the curse is designed to save us.
There is, in our culture, a certain audacity in “bringing religion into” a discussion on work; it’s a faux pas – and I don’t violate it because I’m unaware of it. I’m a pretty smart guy – when I break a social rule, it’s intentional – I just have a reason that’s discreet and not readily apparent, or I’ve weighed the cost against a more desirable object and acted accordingly. I’m breaking this rule, because the rule itself – the separation of religion from work is, in part, based upon the very separation of work from meaning, and indeed upon the historical misunderstanding of the Christian view of work which is embedded in contemporary Western culture. Obviously, if work is thought of as a curse, the resultant “religious” ideas are not really smoothly compatible with an effective or thriving workplace. Keep in mind, I’m suggesting that’s part of the reason for the social taboo. Don’t believe it? What do people talk about on Monday morning and Friday afternoon – escaping from work – perhaps “having” to work during the weekend – sounds to me like they think it’s a curse. It’s culturally ingrained. So I break the taboo on religious talk at work to redefine the curse inherited from a religious misconception that’s breaking work for so many people.
The other causes for which I’m violating the norms of a professional blog are that: I find Faith to be the richest and most powerful and widely familiar source of metaphor to augment a discussion about meaning and about work, and also because we’re talking here about history. Historically, sociologically, anthropologically, these ideas have shaped our society in one way or another and are still latent within its cultural assumptions. What economist or historian or student of work completely throws Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) – over his shoulder? It’s required reading in the academies for any such professional, and ignorance of its thesis on the results of a particular work ethic is a basic failure of general education. One could cite other such discussions, but the point is, the faux pas only survives as such when we are not conversant in the breadth of discussion happening in most other places in our culture and in the world. The world is bigger than that rule, bigger than that supposed norm – and, frankly, this blogger always feels free to use ideas from anywhere anyway.
The primary subject matter of this blog is a synthesis of collective wisdom and individual insight on work. If Christendom had nothing significant to say, that in itself would be a profound commentary, and worth examining in that light. When it comes to work, we listen everywhere.
In any case, that’s the deal with the blog: This author deems a false construct that dialectical opposition of work with various avenues of life that are brimming with meaning. Work *is* the vehicle of meaning. Work isn’t opposed to family, to Faith, or to fun. One person commented on an earlier post that “hobbies” were invented, more or less, as attempts to survive the dualism that occurs when you oppose work with life in the mind. As reasonable and meaningful reactions to conflicting internal-mental and external-societal and cultural demands, I can’t speak against them quite so vehemently. But I can say, in my experience, they fade away when you find yourself doing what you’re meant to do with your life. Someone might say, “Well, I’m meant to play.” Perhaps you are – go play; I’m not – me, well, I’ve got to go to work.