I saved this one for last because Work is probably my most conflicted relationship – spiritually, personally, mentally, and all other “-allys”. The mythology surrounding work in our culture is powerful and deeply influential, and my rebellion against the long-prevailing subterranean and overt ways ideas of work seek to conform us to some idea of ‘normality’ also run very deep. Deep enough that I am not sure where to begin with this one.
Let’s begin with some admissions:
I believe that the best work is probably no work at all. That is not a statement of laziness or angst; it is a philosophical statement primarily. ‘Work’ as the word for what we do to afford what we do in our lives comes from the beginning of the industrial revolution. Work is the scientific designation for what you get when you introduce an agent to a process for a particular outcome. A car engine does work when you introduce the explosive agent of gasoline into the engine, which does the work to get you to where you want to go. The ‘process’ part of that equation is what ‘work’ is. So it is a relatively recent thing to apply the word ‘work’ for the process of creating a livelihood for ourselves. So when I say ‘the best work is no work at all‘, I mean the very word we use in the post-Enlightenment, post-modern, modern world for what we do for our livelihood is misapplied. We need better language for our ‘work’.
I believe a big problem in our culture is that our ‘work’ is not our vocation. Back before the Industrial Revolution, vocation was a big deal. A person was ‘called’ into a particular vocation, or they were apprenticed into a vocation. Bakers, doctors, shoemakers, house-builders, musicians, monks, soldiers, weavers, candlestick makers, blacksmiths, scribes, farmers were all apprenticed into their vocation. Your mentor for that ‘work’ might be your father or uncle, or you might have entered into a guild to learn from elders to do your craft. I am not saying this was better; I am just saying that this kind of arrangement made people think about ‘work’ differently. The question for a young person (back then ‘young’ meant 12 or 13, not 18-21 like today) was “what will you do for the rest of your life?“, not “what job can I get?” I am being simplistic here, I know. But my point is, very different questions were asked about one’s work not so very long ago than the questions we ask now.
A vocation is often referred to as a ‘calling’. Martin Luther, the great 16th century pastor and theologian and protesting religious guy, placed a great value on ‘vocation’, or ‘calling’. He believed God called us to a particular way of work in the world, and when we were misaligned with God’s call upon us, we felt unmoored, ungrounded, in conflict with God. So if a baker were meant to be a shoemaker, the baker would be in a constant state of anxiety because he was misaligned with God’s will for him. Luther may have been overstating things, but I do think it has become a luxury in some ways to even entertain the question “What is God calling me to do for my livelihood?” As a result, we reserve ‘calling’ for things like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and of course pastors. Which is a shame because one of the great revolutions Luther inspired was to see the value of all livelihoods. This was picked up by the Puritans, who had almost a reverential sense of vocation about the work that needed to be done around them. The much maligned “Protestant Work Ethic” was actually meant to be an empowering sensibility for those who worked, not a denigration or some kind of way of lording it over others.
All this is to say I believe we have broken our ability to find vocation in the world because we have elevated the industrial idea of ‘work’ over the idea of finding what fulfills one’s soul in the world.
I believe when an economy is changing or broken, how we work changes or breaks too. This one is both good and bad. For people who have been trained in specific and narrow trades and skills, when the economy tanks or changes, they will have nothing to transition into. The scenario gets even worse when you add in robots. When economies alter and change, so does work.
I don’t want to get into economics much here, except to simply say that our economy is changing radically as we transition from a product based to a service and experience based economy. Lower wages, multiple streams of income and jobs, and constant upgrading is the way of the future. More and more, the modern economy is about creating experiences, not an excellent final product. This is why I have to replace my tablet every 2 to 3 years – the software outstrips the hardware. The Art of Manliness has a great podcast with the editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelley, where he talks about all this.
Work in an experience economy becomes highly relational, fluid in skill sets, and highly mobile. It can be deeply unsettling for someone who is moving out of a product and outcome economy to a service and experience economy. The spiritual effects can be devastating.
So I believe that work is a poor word for the vocational calling we are meant to fulfill, which is challenged by a changing economy. A person – and by person, I mean me – can approach this with dread and pain and suffering, or with some sense of excitement at meeting a new and unknown challenge. I fluctuate and lurch between these two extremes.
The caveat in my discussion here is that I, in fact, do think of my current job as pastor of a church as a vocation in the sense that Luther meant, and I feel like enacting that vocation aligns with my gifts and talents. And ministry is an experience-based work in the world. There are no final projects in ministry. There are culminating events, like the weekly worship service and the sermon, but both of those are completely dependent on their participation and reception by congregation and minister alike.
As we go forward, I will be exploring these themes more personally and with some research and depth, I hope. As you can see, I have already blown my 500 word a day introduction, so I will be modifying that to agreeing to post weekly at a minimum.
Thanks for reading!
May the blessing of light be on you – light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire,
so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it.
And may light shine out of the two eyes of you,
like a candle set in the window of a house,
bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm.
And may the blessing of the rain be on you,
may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines,
and sometimes a star.
And may the blessing of the earth be on you,
soft under your feet as you pass along the roads,
soft under you as you lie out on it, tired at the end of day;
and may it rest easy over you when, at last, you lie out under it.
May it rest so lightly over you that your soul may be out from under it quickly; up and off and on its way to God.
And now may the Lord bless you, and bless you kindly. Amen.