-- Frederick Buechner
Here’s something odd.
This past Monday was Labor Day, the one day every year as Americans we are asked to reflect upon the absolute centrality of work to our daily lives. But here’s the weird thing. We didn’t work that day. Didn’t labor. Most of us did anything but toil on Monday. We grilled, we played, we drove, we rested, we bid adieu to summer, we biked, we hiked, and we chilled out, anything but work. Unless we were among the small minority of folks who had to clock in—cops and firefighters, clerks and lifeguards, nurses and doctors, essential workers—we gladly skipped work.
Work. Yet this is still what we do more than almost anything else in life. Work. Like all people, in my life I’ve been a worker many times over. A janitor. Warehouse clerk. Delivery van driver. Printer. Newspaper editor. Corporate communications specialist. Minister. Writer. From the day of my first job, when as a sixteen year old I was hired to clean toilets and swab floors at a Catholic retreat center, to this day, as I type away on a computer and write about life and God: I’ve worked.
Work is the one non negotiable call in this life, something that almost all humans must do, need to do, have to do. Work. We work for money, to support ourselves and our loved ones, to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. We work because we live in a world which does not freely or easily come to us, or reward us, without some toil or effort on our part. We work because labor at its best gives us a reason for being. We spend much of our early life preparing for work, training for work, learning about work, and then when we are ready, we begin our life’s work.
In a real way, life is work and work is life.
According to Business Insider magazine, the average American worker will spend 90,000 hours over the course of the average life working. The only activity humans do more than work is sleep—220,000 hours in a life—and we need all that shut eye to rest from work or to get ready for work. Yet for something we spend so much time doing—more time than we have for leisure, more time than we have with our family and friends---our satisfaction with work is apparently lacking. According to an August 28th New York Times article “Rethinking Work”, work is not really working out. “How satisfied are we with our jobs? Gallup regularly polls workers around the world to find out. Its survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either ‘not engaged’ with or ‘actively disengaged’ from their jobs. Think about that: Nine out of 10 workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.”
Those are sobering statistics about the state of human work. It certainly explains why on the one national holiday dedicated to work, we choose enthusiastically to not work. So here’s a radical idea: what if we redefined “work”. What if we saw our life’s work not as the thing we do the most, but instead the job or pursuit we undertake which brings us the most joy? Work that makes us feel most alive? Work that we would do for free, maybe already do for free, and still love it nonetheless? What if in the words of the theologian Fredrick Buechner, we saw Godly work, divine work, real work, as the place where our one of a kind passion meets the world’s deep need?
Then our work might not just be what we labor at 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week. Maybe our true work then is…coaching in youth sports, helping kids grow into their best selves. Maybe our true work is parenting, being the very best Mom or Dad we can be. Maybe our true work is a hobby: shaping a piece of wood into a work of art, singing in a choir and hitting that perfect note, biking 100 miles and knowing the satisfaction of a soaring spirit and healthy body. Maybe our true work is volunteering on a town committee, working to make the community whole. Maybe our true work is being sober and helping other addicts to know serenity and the joy of a substance free life. Maybe our work is digging into our faith in God: building a house for the poor, advocating for the powerless in our world, feeding hungry men and women at the Pine Street Inn in Boston.
Because there is work. Then there is work. As a person of faith I have no doubt that God plants within every single human soul the gifts to do the good work which cries out to be done in our world. Maybe our “job” then as humans is to discern what our true work really is, then pursue that labor with passion and purpose.
So happy Labor Day: not just one day a year, but every day. Now let’s get to work.