Embracing Work

Despite the recent weather, this is the month of May. I know it may not look like it, but it is. And beneath those heavy clouds, and despite the low temperatures, the natural world is insistently coming into fuller life. 

May is the time when spring’s slow start accelerates into a profusion of abundance. Now is the time when wild animals couple together to create future generations of their kind. Now is the time when plants stretch yearningly toward the sun and build their resources in preparation for their full summer display. 

Life is moving into high gear – releasing its winter inhibitions and bursting forward with abandon. 

Throughout this month, our theme will echo May’s lushness and wildness. We will explore what it means to live life fully – living unrestrained and rushing headlong into the richness of life. 

We are aware that life offers us great joys and pleasures. The flowers of this season with their beauty and fragrance are emblematic of that great gift. But lurking beneath the rose’s beauty is a thorn ready to make us pay a price in blood. 

The author Morris West spoke eloquently about what it means to live fully and why doing so can be so very difficult. 

“IT COSTS SO much to be a full human being” he wrote “that there are very few who have the enlightenment or the courage to pay the price. [...] One has to embrace the world like a lover. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing...” 

This month, we will ask ourselves about the costs and the blessings of the life lived fully. We will explore what is required of us to live in this way – how we can become wise enough to discern the right direction and how we can be daring enough to enter into and persist in that journey. 

Today, just a few days after May Day, or International Workers’ Day, we turn our attention to the activity that takes up so very much of most of our lives – the activity that some embrace and some do only with great reluctance – we will focus on the work we do. 

What is this thing we call work? You certainly know you’re at work if you have dressed specially and are doing something you don’t particularly want to do in exchange for something you do want to have – usually – but not always money. 

There are two extreme views of work. The first one is represented by the reading by Jan Beatty. Work...is...work is the fatherly advice offered there. There is nothing redeeming about work. You’d quit it in a second if the lottery would just please, pretty please, come up with the right numbers! 

The second view is represented by the story that is told of a wood carver whose shop prominently displayed a sign reading “never worked a day and never will.” Over decades, the wood carver made and sold the most beautiful carved wood objects day-in and day-out for decades. People wondered about that sign. Never worked? Here he was producing these beautiful things – in fact, it seemed he never stopped working! Of course, the resolution to that puzzle is that the wood carver never once thought of what he did as work because it was something he loved. 

Or consider Thomas Edison, the great inventor, who said “I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun.” 

Of course, Edison or our wood carver would agree that not all work is like this – that it has to be the right work. 

I wonder how many of you hold to one or the other of these visions. Is work just work and nothing more than a way to earn your bread???? 

Is work so satisfying and even fun that it doesn’t feel like it should be given a label as negative as work???? 

What if we were to make a distinction between a job and work. This is how Mathew Fox, the radical Catholic theologian suggests we think of it. “A job” he says “is something we do to get a paycheck and pay our bills. [...] work is why we are here in the universe...” 

When we have the right work – when we have work that is meaningful and rewarding to us, it changes from being a job and becomes nurturing to our spirits. 

When we have work that meets our needs for creativity and freedom and flexibility, it can be an absolute delight. 

When we have work that means we are contributing to something great – bringing pleasure or healing or wisdom or justice to the world – the daily aggravations may seem to vanish into that larger purpose. 

The late Steve Jobs has become something of an icon these days – more than just in a business context. To many, he represented a way of doing business that is different and more meaningful. Apple’s product design always seems to exemplify quality and beauty, and Jobs – as the man behind that astounding brand – gained something of a cult following, which has perhaps even grown following his death. 

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life” said he asserted, “and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. [...] Don't settle.” 

The man whose name was Jobs described just the quest that takes us from jobs to our true work. 

I am one who has found such work. I know that others among you have been that fortunate too. When we are in full-time work, we spend more than a third of our waking hours engaged in that activity. 

Life becomes an entirely different experience when those hours bring meaning and joy than when they are drudgery with the clock’s second hand slowing to a barely perceptible crawl – seconds turning to minutes, minutes to hours, and a work day all but interminable. 

Many of the people who find work so fulfilling are – like Steve Jobs – privileged people who have not had to worry about working for survival or to feed their families. Most of the poets and philosophers whose words speak so eloquently about the importance of meaningful work never had struggle for money. 

Those words don’t come from the people who have to stand at an assembly line and mechanically, repetitively, attaching one pointless widget to another. They don’t tend to come from people who clean other people’s toilets or work all day in a slaughterhouse. 

And then, we do hear the occasional stories of people with absolutely awful jobs who manage to remain cheerful and even satisfied. One of you told me about the man who spent hours and hours at a windowless, greasy cooking station deep-frying burritos. Asked why he always seemed to be happy and upbeat, he said “I love these fried burritos” and “you just need to put more of what you love out into the world.” 

One of you painted houses for years to survive and – at least part of the time – found it a satisfying and maybe even meditative activity. 

There was the Vietnamese immigrant woman who cleaned motel toilets and found it fulfilling because she felt she was caring for people who were far from home, just as she was.

But I think those of us who are privileged, like to hear these stories. They make us feel less guilty for the injustices of a system that lets some seek deep satisfaction in their work while others can barely manage a roof over their heads in a crime-ridden area of town. 

In my home country, the conservatives will say that anyone can get anything if they work hard enough. They will say that skin colour and class and accent and all the rest are not impediments – that everyone has an equal shot. 

And that is simply a mass of bovine excrement. 

We cannot think about satisfaction in work without recognising that this important aspect of living a meaningful life is denied to many. Spending a third or more of our lives in an activity over which we have no control, that demeans us, that damages our bodies, and that numbs our spirits is a terrible way to live. Work satisfaction is not simply a question of attitude. It is not a matter of trying harder. It is a justice issue. 

And, despite that, the Buddha shovelling snow also has something important to teach us. 

A carpenter of my acquaintance described how he is happy and satisfied in his work when he can be in the work. There have been times when financial pressures have meant that he was distracted and worried. The work then became unpleasant. It felt like a chore. It felt like just a job. He has only injured himself twice – both were times when he was not “in” the work but pulled away by worries. 

The Buddha “...has thrown himself into shovelling snow

as if it were the purpose of existence, 

as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway” 

So many things can keep us from being “in” the work. Some of these are under our control. We may be distracted by other concerns. We may be repeating a mantra that “this work is beneath me” and be focused on resentment. We may spend energy thinking about others who have it better – envy is a sure path to unhappiness. 

Rule number 1 for turning a job into work: Be in the work. 

And then, we think of the stonemasons building Salisbury Cathedral. One was aware only of the drudgery of cutting stones. A second, still miserable, was focused on the money he was earning. The third had a gleam in his eye – he was building a cathedral. 

Rule number 2: as much as you can, focus on the greater good to which you are contributing. 

The work we do is a huge part of our lives. It enriches or impoverishes our existence. It can create a sense of purpose or a sense of worthlessness. At its best, work enables us to help to build a better world. At its worst, life is drudgery and pain. 

I wish for each of you that you are able to identify and find the means to do work that satisfies and feeds your spirit. I wish you the joy of being absorbed in good work and the satisfaction of making a difference. 

We do not work in isolation, separate from one another and separate from the world of beings with whom we are connected. There is great work to be done, work that we do together to change lives for the better. 

May our work together help to make work that is true a possibility for all of humankind.