Ideas about work have always played a large role in my life. I grew up with my dad’s stories of laying brick under the supervision of Hans, the German mason who would tell him, “Steve, nobody cares how hard you work. They care how much work you do.” My dad may have inherited another pearl from his father: “If it were meant to be fun, they wouldn’t have called it work.” As an exasperated supervisor, my dad once felt occasion to remind a team member he was scheduling that you don’t get to choose your own assignments – “this isn’t @#$% Disneyland!” The rest of his crew apparently found that to be humorous enough to have considered getting t-shirts made with the slogan.
I definitely heard from my dad about the unpleasantness of his work. As much as a particular supervisor, co-worker, policy, or task could aggravate him however, work itself carried great intrinsic value. There was something to be said about rolling up your sleeves and doing what you had to do. Satisfaction came from fulfilling your obligation and meeting your own high standards for a job well done. In spite of all that, I was never encouraged to find regular work of my own during high school, and was instead told very clearly that studying was my job, albeit an unpaid one. So I approached school with just that mentality, fueled by home-grown intrinsic motivation. Even as I came to put much more time in cranial labor than manual labor, I developed an appreciation for the latter over time, particularly when it gave me the chance to be in nature somehow.
I admire physical laborers for their strength and determination, and there are aspects of that culture of toughness that very much appeal to me, even though that is not where my primary gifts lie. The relative infrequency of manual labor in my life probably leads me to romanticize it and relish the chance to participate in it—particularly when part of a team—precisely because it is not my daily backbreaking toil. Stories of lumber camps may sound fun when I read about them, but I bet the actual experience would have gotten old rather quickly for me.
One of my early impressions here in the Dominican Republic was of the physical strength of the rural Dominican men, often in their 60s, who worked tirelessly digging trenches for their new aqueduct system as I struggled to keep up. This past week, I was back to intensive ditch-digging for several consecutive days for the first time since this past summer. Thankfully my conditioning has improved in the meanwhile and I was able to acquit myself a bit better, but I still recognize that when I take part in such projects, I am more of a tourist than a full-time resident.
Marists proclaim love of work to be one of the five pillars of our group spiritual personality. While sometimes this love of work has a dark side that that can lead to a life out of balance and a struggle to find meaning after retirement, there is much to celebrate in it as well. To truly love work, you must see how your efforts contribute toward adding some real value to a worthy undertaking. This means both having a sense that what you are trying to do is important to somebody and that you bring enough talent to bear that you are able to advance the cause rather than set it back. If both these things are true, than likely you will love your work, at least initially. You may even be able to love it for the long term if you set enough boundaries to prevent burnout by preventing it from taking over your life. If you find something that you are good at, that somehow makes this world a better place, and that you thus derive enjoyment from, you have probably identified an important aspect of your vocation.
St. Marcellin Champagnat loved various kinds of manual labor, precisely because he was able to make himself useful and because it fit his talents. That does not mean his vocation was to be a carpenter. Rather, his skills in carpentry played an important role in how he lived out his vocation as a pastor, as the founder of the Marist Brothers, and as an apostle to youth. In the same way, a young person who discovers a passion and a gift for law or accounting might not be called to primarily be a lawyer or accountant. Sometimes those skills and knowledge areas can be put to service instead within a non-profit, or even as a consecrated religious.
Your work is valuable as long as you are able to engage in it authentically. There may be unpleasant tasks. There may also be situations in which the sole value of an otherwise miserable job is the ability to feed your family, something that in itself is very important. Regardless, work is more than an unpleasant necessity, but rather the means we have as human beings to transform the world, whether as a profession or as a hobby. I find it very telling that in the second Creation story, God creates Adam and pretty immediately gives him something to do – “Hey Adam, I want you to name these animals for me.” After expulsion from Paradise, work becomes toil as well, to reflect that in our broken world, work has too often become a painful tool of exploitation. That doesn’t eliminate the value of work overall, however.
So do your work. Do it well so that you can take pride in it, and understand it well enough to figure out why it matters. Hopefully this will bring satisfaction to your labors, but even so, we should remember that it won’t always be fun. After all, it’s not Disneyland.
This week’s “ear candy” and “brain food” both deal with the culture of work in a different way. The underperformed “Salt of the Earth” from the Rolling Stones’ classic “Beggars Banquet” album ostensibly celebrates the working class majority while also illustrating the distance that the singer feels from the masses that he otherwise values so greatly. Meanwhile, the article by Erin Griffith examines the dark side of love of work by presenting a problematic example of workaholism among today’s young adults.
Ear Candy: “Salt of the Earth” by the Rolling Stones
Brain Food: “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” by Erin Griffith
Come back next Saturday for a new post!