on work

Americans have a strange relationship with it.  We work a lot.  We’re taught about work ethic from a young age, we value dedication and long hours, and we often have a strained push-pull with taking time off.  We know from tons of data and research that self-care is critical to health and happiness, but culturally we can’t quite develop a collective relationship with the short- and long-term value of balance.  Look no further than our mostly punitive maternity contracts, and it’s clear that you really need to get back to work ASAP.  Consequently, most of us have unhealthy or at least complicated feelings about working.

In college my major was called the Program of Liberal Studies. This sounds like an amorphous humanities program, but in fact, it was an amazingly specific one.  It was mainly a Great Books major with our reading list including every great tome from antiquity to about 1950.  We read all the classics, plus some more unusual titles, with an integration of mathematics, sciences, music, art history, philosophy, and religious studies.  It was pretty awesome.  When I applied and was accepted to the program I found myself among the Book Nerds of all book nerds.  I was psyched.

One of the more unusual titles we read was a philosophical text by German author Josef Pieper entitled Leisure:  The Basis of Culture.  I loved the book, and especially the way Pieper viewed work.  According to Pieper, leisure is a condition of the soul.  Oh my goodness I love that phrase so much.  His idea was not that we need a piña colada on a sandy beach to restore ourselves (although I believe that might be debatable), in fact we can find both meaning and leisure regardless of whether we’re in work mode or not.  My professor at the time gave a great analogy of the construction worker.  While the construction worker is toiling in the hot sun, where is his mind’s eye? If he is engaged in a loving search for an understanding of Being and Eternal Wisdom, is this not the primary action and purpose of man?  My professor explained, we are made to work and philosophize (among other things), though the mix will be different from one person to the next. But philosophizing is the loving search for an understanding of Being and Eternal Wisdom, and it is the primary action of man.  Wowzers.

Now, I can feel some eye rolling.  I get it, you can’t think about Plato’s cave while you’re working on a legal brief.  So, let me give you a better example.  My dear friend owns a beautiful children’s clothing company.  About a year ago, a shipment of her dresses arrived with many missing buttons.  Like 300 of them.  I felt horribly for her because this sounded like a ton of work.  I don’t know how to sew on a button let alone 300, so I imagined the awful and tedious work she had to undertake.  Interestingly, when I asked her about it in her office, while she was sitting next to the sewing machine, she was elated.  She said she hadn’t been back doing this kind of work since she started the company, and she loved using her hands again.  This is exactly what Pieper is talking about.  No, she wasn’t philosophizing about the meaning of life, as far as I know, but she was finding pleasure and meaning in her work.  In many ways I feel like Pieper is hitting on the same thing that Buddhists hope to ascertain: enlightenment.

My kids were in a Waldorf school when we were living in Vermont, and one big part of the school’s practice is having the kids do some form of work.  This is a pretty foreign concept to American parents of my generation.  Our kids play.   They may have iPads or phones.  They may make their beds, maybe.  They do homework, but we shy away from having them work… Until they graduate from an Ivy League School, and then they’re expected to work 80 hours a week in their careers.  Wait, that sounds terrible.

Waldorf schools familiarize children with the idea of finding meaning in work from a young age.  Why do they grind their own oats for snack?  Why do they clean up and wash their own dishes?  Why do they plant their own gardens and tend to them?  Because each act is celebrated as a critical and meaningful part of the community.  Teachers can say, “Josie ground these oats for our oatmeal today.  Thank you, Josie.”  “We planted these carrots; aren’t they delicious?”  “Thank you, William, for washing our dishes so that we have clean plates to eat on today.”

A spirit of generosity, community, and purpose becomes the most prevalent aspect of the classroom.

Imagine if that condition of the soul became a part of our work environments?  Sign me up.


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