Labor, Work, and The Meaning Of Life
Labor Day, Wikipedia tells us, “is a public holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September… It honors the American labor movement; the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the country… In Canada, Canadian trade unions are proud that this holiday was inspired by their efforts to improve workers’ rights.”
This Labor Day, I have put some reflection into the meaning of work in one’s life and how important work is to the soul. As Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, wrote, “To live well is to work well…”
There is a difference between a “job” and “work.” We may be forced to take a minimum wage job to pay the bills, but work is something else. Work comes from inside and is an expression of our soul. Work is what puts us in touch with others. Work is about contributing, being of service to the community. Work is creative. Work is about making the world a better place by the expression of our unique talents.
“Work,” writes Matthew Fox in The Reinvention of Work, “touches life itself. Good living and good working go together. Life and livelihood ought not to be separated but to flow from the same source, for both life and livelihood are about Spirit. Spirit means life, and both life and livelihood are about living in depth, living with meaning, purpose, joy, and a sense of contribution to the greater community… bringing life and livelihood back together.”
A stay-at-home mother with six children told me the other day that with her children returning to school, she felt a sense of emptiness, like her role as a mother didn’t have much value. I explained to her that the value in her work is not expressed in monetary terms. Indeed, much work in our culture is not paid at all. Perhaps even the most important work in our society is the work we don’t get paid for. For example, raising children, cooking meals, organizing youth activities, singing in a choir, cleaning up one’s neighborhood, tending a garden, planting a tree, volunteering in a community, mentoring a university student. Matthew Fox asks the question: How might these examples of good work be rewarded so that they are counted in our understanding of the gross national product (GNP)? For indeed, this kind of work – the kind we often don’t get paid for – is where true value lies.
I once heard an unemployed man say, “I’m only unemployed between 9-5.” Our lives are bigger than our jobs we get paid for. On this Labor Day weekend, I hope you will take a little time to reflect on some important questions:
- What is your real work?
- Where do you find meaning and significance and purpose in your contribution to the community and world around you?
- Can you bring more of your “real work” to your “paid work” – your job?
- For those of you who have employees, can you help them to find more of their real work in their jobs? You won’t have to motivate anyone once you find their real work.
Do you care enough to find out about the real work of the people around you? There’s nothing wrong with not getting paid to do your real work. At minimum we can be grateful for a job that enables us to do our real work at home.
We may not have a job. We may be retired. We may be unemployed. We may have a job that we don’t like. Or we may have a job where we get paid to do our real work. But we all have to work. Finding our real work is what makes life worth living.