On the Nature and Purpose of Work

Work. What is work? In its common usage now, it generally refers to one’s employment; in a broader sense, it communicates any task that one is constrained to do, which one tries to avoid and by no means enjoys (such as schoolwork, chores, etc.). If this is work, then what is left in life? Well, play. Consumption of entertainment. The neglect of one’s mind and body seen as the only alternative to using them for work that degrades their dignity.  I believe that we are selling ourselves cheaply, exchanging the invaluable for the worthless.  May I propose that our lives consist of abundant work and sufficient rest? That both are joy?

For a moment, consider your life from a removed vantage point. What do you see? What will your eulogy be?  Will we venerate those who ruthlessly climb the corporate ladder, only to find that it leans against a burning building?  Do we follow those whose time is a tribute exacted by the mass-produced, characterless diversions of a system that measures a human’s value by profitability, that defines us by our purchasing power?  My life’s effort will not be spent in service of anything that does not have my love. Too much time is exhausted fretting over what people we dislike think about us.  We become like them when we worry thusly, when we grovel before the false ideals that claimed their once-alive hearts.

If I were to describe work, in an insufficient manner, as any human only can, I would call it love manifested in action and substance.  It is a life’s production, outflow, effort.  Much of it is hidden, unseen by all but those who care, who know the truth revealed by quietness. Work may be requested, expected, or suggested, but it must nevertheless be voluntary to be good work.  Good work is done with all one’s being.  A task executed only to meet a deadline is dead, not worthy of the time that it demanded. What if we were to work as if we had all eternity to make the product the very best it could be?  In a way, we do have all eternity, for each choice and action, each work of ours right now shapes eternity.  Can anyone afford to create shoddy work?  The price of our voluntary blindness is a debt that none can pay.

Work is the lost idea of vocation, literally a calling. It is worthy of one’s entire life (both in duration and substance), for skill is perfected by time.  It rests on the living for preservation, a gift from master to disciple (or apprentice). Lack of skill is no excuse for bad work. Life requires humility to learn, commitment to a chosen path, and unreserved giving of oneself out of love. The fruit of a life proves the true character. Inexperience is invalid rationalization for stingily withholding one’s heart and soul from work.  No, we cannot do everything perfectly.  As finite beings, we must limit ourselves to a capacity that we can carry with excellence. Believe it or not…get ready for this…being busy and harried is not righteous. Peace and self-control and generosity are.

Work produces the culture of a place. Idleness destroys it. A place with much work is a “place worth caring about” (I heard this powerful phrase from a TED talk by James Kunstler; you must watch it), rich and joyful, flawed but beautiful, abundant and wise.  A place without work is vacuity and death, no matter how pretty the mask it wears. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (ESV Bible, 2 Thess. 3:10) is just common sense, a reflection of the universal truth of life and work being mutually dependant, with idleness an alluring and stupefying poison. Work is art, music, food, all things crafted or enacted or growing.  It is learning, everything from philosophy to science. One who nurtures a work worthy of their devotion does not retire. After all, who would abandon a life’s love? Good work is commitment. It is humility, for one never stops learning, or work is stagnant rather than renewing. It is teaching, for one cares about the future of what one loves. To work well, you must care deeply about excellence. No matter what the task, because of who you are, you leave your seal on all that you touch. Consider the message, the philosophy, of a hand-made, carved oak chest fashioned by a master carpenter, versus one hastily assembled from particle-board and mass-produced for anonymous sale at a department store. A painstakingly tended, diverse garden, with all its colors and insect co-habitants, that bring joy and strength to a family’s table, versus a isolated monoculture force-fed chemicals, whose farmer’s weary eyes gaze from machine at that which sucks the life of both his family and the soil. An unknown group of passionate, skilled musicians who would never “succeed” but whose poetry and harmonies enrich the community and knows and loves them, versus the latest popular band, thrust from obscurity, soon to return, lacking skillfully crafted lyrics or music, voices “perfected” by a computer, trapped within the anonymity inherent in celebrity.  A meal carefully prepared from ingredients raised by the chef, handmade in a welcoming kitchen full of laughter, shared by a community, versus conveniently packaged, apathetically assembled by a stranger, consumed in a perfunctory manner by strangers bound by biology, the food not delicious enough to warrant even a brief hiatus from homage to individual smartphones, scarfed by those too busy to engage in life’s most fundamental and enjoyable function.

Work is for the sake of love (“the enactment of connections,” in the words of Wendell Berry) . It is the act of choosing, then honoring that choice with commitment of time and utmost effort. It is always improving and teaching, and it considers the future cost of every action. It lasts, whether physically or in tales and song.  It does not exhaust resources, but respects and renews them (one’s own self included, let us not forget). To paraphrase Wendell Berry, a worker must honor his materials. (Amazing individual, whose work surpasses mine hundredfold. He has amazing insight on the meaning of work.) Those who work well don’t fear death or wish for more time, rather know and welcome a fitting end. Work is a life well-lived.


Of course, I have neglected to explore the equally important idea of rest, which will be the subject of my subsequent post.  Yes, you have to wait.  It builds character.

One thought on “On the Nature and Purpose of Work

  1. Megan, this is very good. Uncle Ron is mentioning right now (after I read it to him) that in the Roman Empire, no one who wasn’t a slave would ever think of doing manual labor. Maybe that contributed to its downfall.

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