Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Questions (Not Answers) About Work

“Work” is a phenomenon that I often think about. My wife and I do a great deal of very valuable work, in addition to building a home and raising a family. She is a Montessori teacher and works very hard and very long at it (in addition to being a truly great mother). I taught at a college for many years, and now I write and lecture as much as I can. Both of us experience what should be normal in the realm of human work, namely, we have some sense of accomplishment in the fruits of our labor.

Forming and guiding the minds of others, communicating understanding, even successfully articulating ideas in the form of comprehensible words–all of this involves true human labor. It involves craftsmanship in its own way, and it draws on the same fundamental human energies and practical skills as the making of tables and chairs or the plowing and harvesting of fields. The “sweat of the brow” is there. So are the “thorns and thistles” of frustration and failure. But the “bread” is made, the bread of the deepening and broadening of the personality and therefore of the capacity to be more and give more; the “bread” of a conscious contribution to the building up of human community by the giving of something that comes from myself, and that therefore “invests” me more–as a person–in the life of the community.

I think every human being who works should have some taste of this bread.

So we work hard. And we earn our bread. But then there is this other thing: money. We get very little of that, at least proportionately speaking. We would make much more money working at Wal-Mart. Still, this is America. Enough “trickles down” to us that we can eat and live daily life in a way that would make us the envy of kings in former ages. But by modern American standards, the house is too small and the budget is too tight. What we have is children and love and creativity and art and poetry and music and books and conversation and fun. And T.V. And more than our fair share of gadgets and junk.

That’s our life. It is far from perfect. But I think we have learned something about the real value of work. As for money...well, the money for the kind of things we do just doesn’t seem to be “there”. So we make do with what we can get.

Other people live differently. They have more things. They have more money. Or perhaps they have less things and less money. But whatever the case, what motivates them to work is not to not to bring forth from their talents and labor realities that bear the stamp of their own personality and that contribute to the building up of the human community. What motivates them to work is money. They work, purely and simply, in order to get money.

I think there is something wrong with this mentality.

It is a natural human thing for the worker to have a real interest in the thing he produces, because the worker is a person, and what he makes or contributes to making remains always in some sense "his," an expression of himself (see JPII, Laborem Exercens,). I don’t know if the fostering of this interest is the concern of economics or culture, or what role the government might play in relation to the social institutions (or lack thereof) of our communities and the stability of our families. Perhaps the lack of this interest has its roots in broader social problems.

All I know is that our society raises big questions about a healthy relation between the person, his work, and the truly human way of participating in the fruits of labor. Something is skewed, off balance, just plain wrong about the way we as a society approach work.

As I said, I don’t know what all this has to do with “economics” and I don’t feel prepared at this point to enter that debate. But a few basic points strike me. A healthy economy, it seems to me, is based on "meeting needs," and flourishes when work is (somehow) coordinated with the real, concrete material, cultural, and social needs of a human community worthy of being called a civilization. In our economy, however, work seems to be focused on "creating and stimulating desires." The result is that material needs are met (since we have no control over their clamoring demands) but instead of the construction of a healthy culture, we are witnessing the massive consumption and production of JUNK. We have what I would call a "junk economy."

People speak of the virtue of a “free market” economy in meeting human needs. I do not want to argue this point. What I want to understand is why we have–in fact–an economy whose engines are vanity, lust, gluttony, sloth, and avarice? I know that good people don't want this. They want a virtuous free market. But, alas, most of us are not virtuous. I do not exclude myself. I am a member of this society. I have never had much money, but with what I have had I have still participated too much in the junk economy. I own plenty of junk. I am a man who is vulnerable to having my desires manipulated. Which is to say, I am a man. I suffer from the effects of “original sin,” that most empirically verifiable of Christian doctrines. A human being is weak. That is one (though not the only) reason why human beings are social beings, made to live together and strengthen one another.

Economy, like everything else, needs to serve the cultivation of the higher virtues (i.e. not just "industriousness" and “cleverness”). How to do it? I don't know.

But there seems to me something unhealthy about how we work today, about the relationship between our work and what it accomplishes: we work for money and we don't care about the actual reality (product, service, or whatever) that is the fruit of our labor, or we care about it only in a secondary and lazy sort of way. Something is wrong with this. How can it be resolved?