“What is my work?

Messenger,  Mary Oliver

“The error of economism [is] that of considering human labor solely 
according to its economic purpose.”

Laborem ExercensPope St. John Paul II

In a basic course on Buddhism, my students and I spend some time reflecting on “right livelihood,” one of the steps on the Noble Eight-Fold Path. They’re intrigued that a religious tradition would set parameters on what counts as legitimate work for human beings to do. I note in our conversation that there might also be such a thing as a Christian theology of work but in their eyes Buddhism is exotic (and thus de facto profound) and Christianity familiar (so they think) and, besides, Christianity is for many of them a dubious proposition altogether so they’ll just go with the Buddhist view, thank you. It’s a course on Buddhism after all so we go with it.

Our conversation is a reminder to me and an eye-opener to the students that for all the talk of “jobs” in our culture we almost never talk about work in the sense of work as elemental to our humanness. Work as the capacity to make something from something else (a kitchen table from a pile of lumber; a a book about modern art from a lifetime of study) for a good greater than oneself while sometimes, but not always, not necessarily, being remunerated for one’s efforts. Work in this sense is not equivalent to “gainful employment.”

Work is a part of our dignity as human beings. According to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions it is an outflow of our participation in the creative work of an ever-creating God.

Even in regard to work-for-pay, most religious traditions (and humanist ones, too) recognize the intrinsic worth of the worker—her right to fair treatment and to a just, living wage. Most economists, by contrast, don’t hold these assumptions as central; rather, the value of a worker is in his productivity, his usefulness in helping to ensure profit in a competitive market.

Within such a view, work is only about jobs, and to be concerned that everyone has a job is less about promoting “right livelihood” and more about increasing consumer spending. If people have jobs, they’ll buy more things, the economy will grow, all will be well.

Likewise, when politicians talk about jobs they’re not talking about work. They’re speaking, we know, to our collective anxiety about things we’ve been told to worry about: “lackluster employment numbers,” “stagnant wages,” “the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.”

I don’t mean to diminish the real, material difficulties of those struggling to find work-for-pay—the chronically unemployed, especially. But it seems worth asking what our jobs have to do with human flourishing, with the well-being of all creation, with our own creatureliness. Buddhism, Christianity, and other wisdom traditions invite us—urge us—to wrestle with such questions.

Donald Trump’s recent empty and irresponsible promise to West Virginians that he’ll “bring back coal jobs” highlights the complexity and urgency of these matters. He (like all politicians, liberal or conservative, left or right) assumes as a matter of course “economism”—the belief that factors and indicators like supply and demand, profit margins, gross domestic product, and access to markets—provide the overarching framework, the foundational paradigm for evaluating societal health and well-being. In such a system, as Pope St. John Paul II observed, human labor is considered solely for its economic value.

Moreover, in such a system, coal miners and other workers in similar relationships with corporations and outside interests, collude with their own oppression. This is exacerbated in Appalachia by an enculturated self-effacement: no group is more ridiculed and pitied than we are so we might as well ridicule and pity ourselves. This self-effacement (which may also be a twisted form of self-loathing) morphs into a kind of stoic pride. This pride may seem admirable, but in reality it undermines the interests and long-term well-being of people who do things like mine coal for a living.

I’m mindful of how offensive this can sound so let me be clear: I don’t wish to denigrate the risky work that coal miners historically have done and continue to do, nor the sense of accomplishment they feel in their vocation, and the benefits all of us receive from their labor.

But here’s the thing: I worry, at least a little, when generations of West Virginians—whether they are connected to coal mining or not—absorb this narrative that they are beleaguered and put-upon, the most-derided regional group in America, and then turn that woundedness into a kind of guarded bravado that refuses to reckon with hard, uncomfortable truths. And then cheers wildly as Donald Trump raises false hopes and exploits worst fears and resentments.

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What is our work?

It sounds a little hackneyed to suggest that, at least in part, work, including remunerative work, is less about making a living and more about making a life.

But isn’t it?

And the work one does that contributes to the making of a life can include bread-baking and neurosurgery, building a fence and mapping the human genome. We have wrongly internalized a kind of hierarchy of work that ascribes the most worth to those prestigious occupations assumed to be at the top. (There was a not-so-subtle paternalism in Trump’s speech in southern West Virginia last week). We drill into our children, for example, from an early age, that they need to go to college so they don’t end up “flipping burgers.” But what about the people who make our food or clean our offices when we go home at night? Are their lives worth less? Does our work matter more than theirs?

In his book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford tracks the educational apartheid that has given rise to these divisions, this hierarchy, and argues for the cognitive richness and moral significance of manual work. He also insists that “if thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”

No matter one’s vocation (a word that deserves its own post), a rich theology of work assumes that, along with the dignity of the worker, there are goods intrinsic to work worth doing well. Economism instrumentalizes work—treats it as a means to some other end. It may be this in part, but the work we do in the world—for pay, for the sheer pleasure of it, because we must—is, when it and we are at our best, its own deep joy and satisfaction.


(Part of this post is taken from some reflections I wrote in 2010 after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in WV in which twenty-nine miners were killed).