Is Work a Dirty Word?

A New Unity Sunday Gathering


Come in to this place of acceptance
Come in to this place that affirms our inherent dignity
Come in to this place where our value is not determined by what we do or earn, or by the profit we can generate
In this circle, our work is growth
Our work is one another
And our work is the creation of a better
world whose beauty will outlast us all



Heart Labor, by Maggie Anderson

When I work too hard and then lie down,
even my sleep is sad and all worn out.
You want me to name the specific sorrows?
They do not matter. You have your own.
Most of the people in the world
go out to work, day after day,
with their voices chained in their throats.
I am swimming a narrow, swift river.
Upstream, the clouds have already darkened
and deep blue holes I cannot see
churn up under the smooth flat rocks.
The Greeks have a word, paropono,
for the complaint without answer,
for how the heart labors, while
all the time our faces appear calm
enough to float through in the moonlight.


Singapore, by Mary Oliver

In Singapore, in the airport,
A darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something
in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain
rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and
neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
hubcaps, with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want to rise up from the crust and the slop
and fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
The way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

Message, by Andy Pakula

Once upon a time, a traveller came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing.

The first replied saying that he was the most miserable person on Earth and that he had the hardest job in the world. “Every day I have to move around huge stones make a living, which is barely enough to eat.” The traveller gave him a coin and continued walking.

The second one did not complain and was focused on his work. When the traveller asked him what he was doing, the stonecutter replied “I’m earning a living by doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county. Although, the work is hard, I’m satisfied with what I do and I earn enough to feed my family.” The traveller praised him, gave him a coin and went on.

When the traveller met the third stonecutter, he noticed that the stonecutter cutter had sweat and dust on him but that he looked happy and was singing a cheerful song. The traveler was astonished and asked “What are you doing?” The stonecutter looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “Can’t you see? I am building a cathedral.”

Probably all but the youngest among us have had the experience of doing work for pay. The attitude that most people have toward work is not well described by the cheerful song and visionary look of the third stonecutter. Instead, we are more often working to make enough money to live our lives in a comfortable way - or perhaps just to survive.

My own experiences with paid work have been varied, but I have to say at the outset of this message that I have not had much experience with the hard side of work. I have lived a privileged life - one where I was given access to a superb education, good connections, and never had to worry seriously that I or my family would go hungry or risk homelessness. I have never had to do demeaning or physically harmful work. 

You will need to choose for yourself whether or not my particular perspective on work means that what I have to say is less valuable to you. With that caveat, here we go… 

This week, I did some interesting work. I spent most of a day making coleslaw. Now, I try not to eat eggs and the coleslaw recipe I used called for mayonnaise with eggs. I went ahead anyway. I don’t particularly like coleslaw. I’ve always seen it as something that comes along with some food I do like and that I can eat if I’m still hungry after all the good stuff is gone.
Nonetheless, I made coleslaw for our food stall at the local primary school. I had help from my wife and son. Together, we turned 15 cabbages, 6 kilos of carrots and a bunch of other stuff into a whole lot of coleslaw. There was an enormous amount of cutting, peeling, shredding, grating, and industrial-scale mixing to be done. I can’t attest for how Miriam and Jacob found the experience, but I sort of enjoyed it. I might easily have resented making all that coleslaw, but I didn’t and it made me consider why. 

Here’s an alternative scenario:

I arrived at my £6.50 an hour job and my boss, who I dislike, ordered me to make coleslaw. I had to do it right then and I had to finish within one hour and 30 minutes. I was to work with one other coworker - also chosen for me. The recipe was chosen for me, how to do it was clearly defined, and I had done the same thing many times before.

When I finished, I was told to do it faster next time and criticised for the few tiny things I could have done better and then assigned the next thing to do - no praise, no idea of whether anyone would enjoy the coleslaw or not - no idea even who would be eating the coleslaw.
Quite a difference. How different would I feel? Very. There would be no joy in this minimum-wage, repetitive, no-freedom, job and I would hate going to work.

The fact is that, for most people, work is much more like this than it is like the actual situation where I wasn’t compelled, had free choice in how to do it, could see it as an adventure, got to work with people I care about and enjoy, got lots of praise, and knew that I was doing it for two institutions I care about - New Unity and the Newington Green Primary School. As it was, the work felt a lot like play.

The story about the stonecutters has been used in many different ways. There is truth to it, of course. Having sense of purpose - whether it is to perfect your skills or to participate in the creation of a grand cathedral that will inspire people for a thousand years - changes the way we see work.

It has also been seized upon by management gurus who see it in a tactical way. If you can make your employees think that their work has a purpose, then they will be better - more malleable - more productive workers.

I’ve had jobs like that. It was my experience in biotech. I was told - and I believed the hype - that we were going to change lives for the better and get fabulously rich in the process. It turned out the only lives we changed for the better were the rich investors and top management who got richer. Hmm…

Working for pay is a reality that is not going to go away anytime soon. That kind of work can be hellish, it can be bearable, or it can actually be rewarding and enjoyable.
To a great extent, that reality lies in the hands of employers. Employers who strive to give employees freedom to choose how and when they do things have workers with more interest for the work they do. Employers who ensure that each worker has varied work, the right amount of challenge and who are generous with rewards, have workers who wake up with at least a bit of enthusiasm about the day to come. And employers who share the a vision with their employees have workers who can see the big picture and recognise why their work matters to someone.

The nature of our lives at work is also - to some extent - in our own hands. 

It may be possible to change the way our current job is structured. It may be possible to change jobs. It may even be possible to learn new skills and change the type of work we do. 
Those can be very frightening possibilities. What if the response to our requests for change leads to a worse situation - perhaps even the loss of a needed job? What if we can’t find a new job or we find one and it’s worse? And developing new skills is itself a difficult prospect - one that makes us beginners again starting along an uncertain new path.

There is another possibility - the potential to find more reward within the conditions in which we already work. This requires yet another kind of change - a change of mindset. 
I am not - absolutely not - saying that bad jobs are good. I am not saying that bad management and exploitation of workers is in any way OK or that we should not work to change such situations. Indeed, if we truly care about human worth and dignity - if we truly care that each person has an opportunity for satisfaction and growth - if we care about the way our society works and the way we all treat one another - we must work to change work that is demeaning and exploitative. 

And yet our own resentment and anger about our situations can be contributing to our misery at work. Like the stonecutters, the same work can be misery with one mindset and deeply satisfying with another. 

Isn’t learning to find the best in a bad job simply helping the employers that make it bad in the first place? Isn’t it better to fight than to learn a way to find good in a bad situation. Both are true, and that’s what makes it especially difficult.

Many times in our lives we need to find a balance between changing a bad situation and learning to make our peace with that situation. Often, we are called to do both at the same time. 

Whether we are employers or employees or both, we have responsibilities about work. 
When we are employers, our values call upon us to make work rewarding for those whose work we influence. We can not let the profit motive overcome our concern for the growth, development, and satisfaction of our fellow human beings.

And if, instead of being the employer with control, we find ourselves cutting stone or cabbage in misery, we may need to take a huge risk of changing our job or make the inner change of letting go of resentment and anger to learn to see that work differently. We do so not to benefit the exploitative employer, but to find greater satisfaction for ourselves and to be more the people we aim to be.

May your life of work be meaningful and may you find opportunities to help others through your actions and your example.

Do your work every day
Do it diligently and conscientiously
Do your true work
Your work is the world
Your work is one another
Your work is growing to be the person you aspire to be
Our work is love