The meaning of work and why it matters

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We could define work as any regular activity that we think is important to do, whether or not it is pleasant, and that might bring financial rewards, or other, maybe personal, rewards.

When I use the word “work,” I mean it in the broad sense. I mean not only activities for which we are paid in money, but also those in which the rewards are of different kinds. Some of the things we do result in deposits being made into our bank accounts. But others don’t. Many of us have routines for keeping our apartments or homes tidy, and for maintaining computers or cars. We provide meals, hygiene, shelter, transportation, education and family visits for our children. Around the corner from where I am writing, volunteers are opening the doors to a homeless shelter. And in countless home studios, people are creating and posting videos that may or may not bring income.

We could define work as any regular activity that we think is important to do, whether or not it is pleasant, and that might bring financial rewards, or other, maybe personal, rewards.

Throughout history, people have regarded work in different ways. The more elitist ancient Greeks tended to avoid it. It was beneath the dignity of people who had the means of escaping it. They left work to servants and slaves. European medieval people saw work differently. They saw society ordered by God and that there were some who were called to physical work and others called to tasks of different kinds including contemplative study, prayer, and governing. According to classical atheist Marxists, work is the means by which we humans discover who we are.

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Of course, these, and other views on work contain useful insights. We avoid work that is unnecessarily difficult. Our education system helps put us in order – to sort out – which people are most adept at working with their hands, minds, imaginations, or power and authority structures. And most of us have some experience of self discovery through work whether that is preparing sandwiches at Burger King or administering a faculty pension plan.

But these more or less ennobling understandings of work may not be enough to prevent us from slipping backwards into the (Greek) view that work is something to be avoided if at all possible. The difficulty of regular work tempts us to “work for the weekend,” to look forward to time away from our kids, to set ourselves up for early retirement, and to (ironically) work very hard for that recreational property in the Muskoka’s where we can be free from responsibilities as often as we can get there.

Vatican II (1962-1965) convened by Pope John XXIII described work in a way that I think is very promising and can help prevent us from turning negative about our work.

Man was created in God’s image and commanded to conquer the earth with all it contains and to rule in justice and holiness. He was to acknowledge God as the maker of all things and relate himself and the totality of all creation to him, so that through the dominion of all things by man the name of God would be majestic in all the earth. This holds good also for our daily work (emphasis mine). When men and women provide for themselves and their families in such as way as to be of service to the community as well, they can rightly look upon their work as a prolongation of the work of the Creator, a service to their fellow man, and their personal contribution to the fulfillment in history of the divine plan.*

There is some terminology in this statement that could be used to support a gender biased, dominating or even colonial approach to the meaning of work. However, a careful reading reveals the view that work is not ultimately about exercising power. Work, obviously, does involve an exercise in power. But it is fundamentally to be offered as a service to God and his purposes, to the community, to the creation, and, as appropriately as to the others, to the individual.

Some will be looking for short term work to get through school. Others will be looking for employment for the long term. Or you may see yourself embarking on a life-long career. Work may mean raising children, caring for your own place or the household of your family. It may mean volunteering for causes that benefit the local community or a larger form of community.

Whatever regular work we seek, find, and put our hands to, I would say that we should try to see it as part of the service we can provide to God and to others. No doubt there will be many days and hours in our chosen work that will frustrate, anger, discourage, or tire us. But having a view of work that sees it as a great value, not only to our own selves, but to God and others, can, I believe, help sustain us through times of challenge.

* Quoted from The Fabric of this World, Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work, by Lee Hardy: Eerdmans, 1990. The view of work Vatican II has in mind is completely oriented towards the presentation of human work found in Genesis 1 and 2 of the Bible.

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