Okay, you would think by now we would have this work thing all figured out. Besides sleep, it occupies more of our day than any other activity. We are often very good at it. But as an exercise for thinking about work, try answering the following questions: Why do I work? For what good do I work? When should I work?
For a Canadian like me, living in the dead of a not-yet-global-warmed winter, these questions somehow have a more haunting and never-ending tone to them. As I am chopping wood for our treasured fireplace, I think, what is work anyway? Well, I guess I know the answer to that—installing shingles on one of the endless rows of new houses at -15C, feet cold, nose dripping, my language progressively getting more vulgar—that’s work. Sitting by the fire—drinking strong coffee and reading magazines—that’s not work. Everything else in between these two I have no answer for. Check with me in the spring.
It’s close to three years now that these folks at the Work Research Foundation have paid me to think about work, and I am still unsettled about it all. I’m not sure I’m quite at the answer stage yet.
Gilbert Meilaender is one guy who has given some serious thought to this subject. In his book Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits, Meilaender captures the wide-ranging thoughts on work and puts them in some order. As he outlines the meaning and limits of work, Meilaender compiles 75 short readings summarizing these different views of work and its limits. From Aristotle to Scripture, to Karl Marx, to Tolstoy, George Orwell, John Calvin, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Novak, and Drucker, each reading is like a swipe of colour on the canvas of work, gradually painting a picture of work and settling our minds on why we get up in the morning.
Here is a quick snapshot of Meilaender’s four perspectives on defining work.
Work as co-creation
Work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation. . . . In working we fulfill our nature and that the worker’s satisfaction comes, in the god-like manner, from looking upon what he has made and finding it very good. . . . Certainly there is something powerful and appealing in this vision. . . . The image of work as co-creation is compelling because it responds to a desire many people have for work that is meaningful and productive.
Work as necessary for leisure
For a second and quite different view of work, we may turn from biblical to classical roots. . . . For many of the great Greek thinkers, work is important for leisure. . . . Conceptually, leisure is the primary notion. Occupation is simply lack of leisure.
Work as dignified but irksome
One does not, however, need anything other than ordinary human experience to learn that work is often burdensome. Certainly any who doubt this might profit from reading George Orwell’s description of the work of coal miners. In his characteristically sparse and direct prose, Orwell takes us unforgettably into the life of a laborer—and reminds us how much we owe to those who daily take up such tasks. “You can never forget that spectacle once you have seen it—the line of bowed, kneeling figures, sooty black all over, driving their huge shovels under the coal with stupendous force and speed.” It is difficult—perhaps impossible—to think of such work as co-creation, and it is hard to imagine that those who engaged in it could have thought of leisure as anything other than sheer rest from labor. Yet, this work is not without its dignity. “It is impossible to watch the ‘fillers’ at work without feeling a pang of envy for their toughness,” Orwell writes. And again, “it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally.” In short, it raises a doubt about wherein true human dignity lies.
Work as vocation
This view of work was powerfully articulated in the Protestant reformation of the 16th century and has had a great impact on our modern view of work. “When God reaches down to touch both work and worker, the work can no longer be described simply as ‘mean’. For then the drudgery is ‘divine’.” . . . The task of the believer was not simply worship, but preeminently work. . . . [The] point of vocation is neither self-advancement nor self-fulfillment, but service. . . . Each person’s calling is, in fact, personal—it is his or her calling from God, and no one else’s. It is God who fits together and orders these several callings in order that the larger, common good may be served. “Hence, thinking of work as a vocation within a whole system of vocations emphasizes that work is a social activity contributing in some way to the common good of all.”
Meilaender’s delightful menu of literary genres—poetry, short story, opinion, philosophy—can all suggest that the meaning and limits of our work are often embedded in our culture, religious beliefs, family traditions, and present circumstances. Why we work is more assumed than thought of. Admittedly, there is one side of me that says forget the thinking and do the work—don’t ask so many questions. On the other hand, your view of work—its meaning and limits—will tell you stories about who you are, what motivates you to get up in the morning. A worthwhile reflection—but don’t let it keep you from your work!