What are we working for?

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March 8, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

One of the privileges of doing a Ph.D. is that you get plenty of time (I’m talking a decade) to think about the meaning of work. In our society, it seems, work is synonymous with money – making money is the only reason people drag themselves off to work every day, because money equals the ability to buy things equals happiness and the enjoyment of life, right? If a job pays enough, we’re supposed to be willing to do it. And of course, the higher a job pays, the better a job it must be – at least that’s how it pans out if you measure work primarily in terms of money.

But if you have other criteria, like your theology, the picture of work changes – and I’m not just talking about the so-called Protestant or Mennonite work ethic (which other people call plain workaholism). I’ve tended to view work and money as related to the call to serve others and to share what we have, and the two options that come to my mind are “voluntary simplicity,” living as simply as you can, in the spirit of thrift shops and the More with Less cookbook, or else getting a decent, salaried job, so as to be able to contribute more to church and economic relief/redistribution organizations like Mennonite Central Committee. I must admit that the first one appeals to me more, maybe because that’s how I’ve been living, partly out of necessity (remember what I said about going to university for a decade?) and partly by choice (if I wanted to live more luxuriously, I could probably make it happen, if I changed my priorities). But the thing about the second option is that you wade right into all the temptations that are involved with making a fine amount of money. For one thing, we’re told that we have to spend a whole bunch of money on ourselves to get into and remain in the professional world – we have to pay for university or college tuition, and such things as a car, a house, professional work clothes, etc. According to this book, many people get caught up in a certain, excessively high standard of living, so that we start to think that “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it” (p. 36). But not only is this lifestyle not normal (despite what T.V. tells us), this really isn’t the kind of life I’m envisioning for myself. I don’t want to live the suburban dream – that’s not how I was raised, and the valuing of money, possessions, and status symbols tends not to leave room or time for things I consider vastly more important: relationships, creativity, ecological living, and a faith that calls us to serve the poor, not amass things we don’t need at their expense (in terms of unfairly-traded goods, corporate jobs with questionable ethics, and straight-out hoarding, living with way more than what we need).

But this brings up an important point: work, in the end, isn’t just about money. It’s about the work itself, and a whole different set of criteria for determining its value: is it worth doing? does it use one’s gifts, skills, and creativity? does it serve others? is it directly related to living out one’s faith? Jobs like social worker, teacher, pastor or church worker, and various jobs in health care come to mind, but also parenting, which certainly isn’t a paid job! Depending on how they’re done, artist, writer, musician, farmer (like the ones above – found here), tradesperson, cook, and even theologian can fit in here too! (And before I start to seem like a huge hypocrite, let me point out that theologians usually make way less than other professors, since they usually work at church colleges or seminaries). These jobs pay anything from nothing to enough to live on to way more than enough, but they’re equally valuable in terms of my criteria.

According to theologian Dorothee Soelle, once we start evaluating work from this other perspective, the sense of work as drudgery, as competition-driven, as profit-based – in other words, as the “curse” that was placed on Adam as a result of sin – begins to lift from our shoulders. We can stop counting down the days until our next vacation – or even until retirement! – and feel that our work is meaningful, enjoyable, useful. Soelle even talks about it in terms of being in the image of Christ, understood as a worker: “When God, incarnate in Jesus, became a worker, our understanding of work was finally freed from the tradition of the curse. The new dignity of the worker appears in this gospel of work” (see this book, 57-8, 80, 85, 90, 151). I worry, though, that in our generation, it’s becoming more difficult for people to choose jobs based on these criteria instead of on cash-value. Those who finish university with huge student loan debt (or who’ve bought into society’s pressures to live beyond their means and go into debt in other ways) feel they can’t choose low-paying or non-paying work. They have to pay off those debts, don’t they? Maybe so they can get new ones, like mortgages and vehicles and no-money-down furniture…

But maybe things aren’t so bad. Maybe I’ve painted too thick a line between the two options of living simply and having a job that pays enough to share. It’s not easy. There will be certain sacrifices that have to be made, and more working together and helping each other (even financially – gasp!) than we’re used to, but these two things can be combined. Working certain jobs doesn’t have to mean adopting consumerist, materialistic lifestyles, neglecting family/friends/community, and practicing injustice on global and ecological levels. We just have to help each other remember, discern, and live out the values of our faith, to follow in the way of Jesus the worker, to live simply even when we don’t have to, and, as Soelle says, that “our superfluous excess belongs to the poor; the poor have a right to it” (106). Then, I think, we’ll be able to work together, and to do good work.

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