Real Work Has Its Reasons
Vivid memories are stored for numerous reasons – from shock or surprise, to excitement or pain. One such memory of mine is of a friend picking me up for a weekend adventure. Five minutes into our drive, she asked the question that made my hackles rise, “How long do you see yourself working in your current position?”
Even now my heart rate increases and my blood pressure rises. I hear her underlying question, “When are you going to get a real job?” I could have retorted, in good Madeleine L’Engle fashion, “‘What is real?’ Is it that which our hands close around, which our eyes see? No! The things which are most real are unseen, according to St Paul. We ‘know’ not by sight, but by what something actually is. So what is a real job by your own definition?” I did not respond with a single inquiry, however. It is difficult for me to articulate my position instantly, putting the question-asker on the defensive when they have clearly offended me. It is probably healthier for my friendships that I am slow on my feet when it comes to replies.
Though my answer that day did not cause my friend to question her assumptions, I have questioned them many times since then. Her query not only wounded my heart about my work, it revealed a sore misunderstanding of both reality and work. A ‘real job’ in my friend’s mind boiled down to tangible ends: healthcare, pay checks, and a retirement plan. I am sickened to realise that most persons in our culture (and the civilised world at large) would agree*. Horror!
Let us recall to mind St Paul’s assertion that, “the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (II Cor 4.18b) Thus, the most ‘real’ things are intangible things like honesty, graciousness, patience, compassion, hope, and so forth. But I do not want to dwell upon reality so much as ‘work’. What is work, and what is work for?
Often the word ‘work’ elicits a groan. Many persons think work is synonymous with ‘unenjoyable misery’ it seems. However, the Online Etymological Dictionary defines work thus:”physical labour, toil; skilled trade, craft…” And Dorothy L Sayers brilliantly and succinctly calls us to see work in this way:
I asked that [work] should be looked upon, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfil itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.
~ Dorothy L Sayers, Why Work
Some jobs are not worth doing. Many items do not fit a need and are not worth making*. A work should be undertaken because it is good in itself, or because it benefits others. Perhaps this is why many persons dread Mondays – they are not doing something that breathes life into their own or others’ souls. Even more painfully, because what they are doing is not worth doing.
Another reason for frustration in work is that the goal of the work is good, but the way it is gone about is not structurally sound, so those good ends are never attained. I once worked helping children learn and grow, a most worthy calling in itself. Yet, I could not bear to be around my co-workers. They came in every day to earn a pay check and benefits, for recognition and renown. I saw children chastised and held back because my co-workers did not try to understand their little oddities or help lead them out of ignorance. For the brief time that I was there I sought to love on those children the most. In the end, I could not remain in my position because the whole structure was misdirected and fragmented, there was no redeeming it from the inside.
Finally, what is work for? Ideally, our work should fulfill a need, bring order or healing, or serve and enrich others, while bringing us joy. Certainly things like street sweepers, rubbish collectors, waste management, and other unpleasant jobs must be done. We live in a world with rubbish and decay. But even those jobs seek to keep persons well and make towns aesthetically pleasing; they are simply different ways of being a doctor or an artist, who also keep persons healthy and make things that are pleasing to the eye. And when we bring order to a place, person, or situation there is a sense of satisfaction.
We are called to various forms of labour, as varied as the personalities we possess. And often we are called to a conglomerate of labours, each worthy in its own place – lifting this or that, writing, cooking meals to share, asking good questions to spur thoughtful conversation, saving lives, cleaning up sickness for a friend, making music, bearing and raising children… It is hard to birth an essay, as it is hard to lift fifty large boxes, or to raise children day in and day out. But just because a thing is difficult does not mean it is not a joy. And just because something gives life to our souls does not mean that it is not real work. And just because we do not earn a pay check for much of our work does not mean it is less important. When we enjoy the work of our hands, finding it pleasurable, then we may rejoice in the kindness of God. For He made us to take joy in creating, cultivating, and caring in multi-fold ways.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.
~ A Psalm of Life, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(Stanzas two and nine)
Just as labour comes in many forms, so the payment of labour does, too. It may mean insurance or a pay check, or it may be satisfaction in the work, or it could be that someone goes home well, or that order and beauty have been made. My hope is that my life shows my friend, and those who share her mindset, that living life well, working hard, enjoying beauty, and loving others all go hand in hand. In the end I want to love others well through the work that I do. Let us then be up and doing, with a heart to labour and to love.
*While it is good to work hard in order to afford travel, own nice things, etc., nothing in our world is certain. Not jobs, banks, health, retirement funds, or anything else. Only God is unfailing.
*On this topic of work being a good in itself, see C S Lewis’ essay Good Work and Good Works.