Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"What do you DO?" Human Work, Expression, and Suffering

Work is hard. Its engaging. Its rewarding. Through it we participate in caring for creation, shaping the world, building a more human environment, and providing for and taking care of those entrusted to us.

Work, like life itself, has a mysterious frustration woven into it. It can become dull and aimless, or heavy like an imposition we try to avoid in every possible way. Or it can become wildly pretentious, a titanic striving that swallows our personality with ferocious ambitions.

Work enriches the person. It expresses human dignity. Our work is often an action that expresses our identity; it gives us a "second name" (literally, in many historical instances), because it indicates something about our fundamental relationship to reality. It also locates our place within the community. Think of all those common last names we have inherited from our ancestors: Smith, Mason, Miller, Weaver, Baker, Cook, Cooper, Carter, Potter, Turner, Brewer, Wright, and--yeah--"Carpenter" too, and many, many more. Over the centuries, people often became identified by what they did, especially if it was some kind of skilled trade passed on from generation to generation.

Of course, today these names are mostly relics. It would be humorous to meet someone named "Cook" who actually works as a cook. Many of these trades no longer exist in industrialized society. Nevertheless, our identity and our conception of ourselves remains profoundly tied to our work. "What do you do?" "Where do you work?" We ask these questions because we hope they will give us insight into the person that we meet. We hope that their work will reveal something about their talents and their interests.

How often is that really true in the world we live in today?

There is a mystery about work. In the beginning of human history, we tried to make ourselves gods by our own effort, and we fell from this presumption into a hostile world where we had to struggle to survive. This struggle remains as part of the legacy of suffering and death.

Work remains a good thing. It has a fundamental attraction which we follow because we are human persons. Work remains a source of enrichment and expression. But something is skewed, and our working life is always weighted with ambivalence and frustration, with failure, disappointment, a sense of alienation. It can even drive us to become oppressors, or trap us into slavery.

But even in the most ideal circumstances, our work falls short of its aspirations. Moreover, "ideal circumstances" are rare. Too often, we work but do not enjoy the real fruit of our labors. Our work does not insert us into the community, and we do not feel like we are building up anything. We invest ourselves as persons in our work, but the value of that work is measured by an opaque entity known as money, a thing that seems to float about the world in an almost random fashion, a thing more easily gained by luck, celebrity, or tricks and schemes. Today money seems like mostly magic numbers that we can view on paper forms, or a computer screen. But the wizards who guard this whom do they answer? Are they even in control?

All through history, people have grappled for survival; some have achieved modest success, but only a few have attained goals in their work that endure for very long. Today, some things may seem easier but work remains a struggle, and we are still reaping thorns and thistles. Like every human thing, work is shot through with suffering even as it is admirable and necessary. Many people feel stuck with constraining and meaningless work; they feel as though they are forced to bury their talents and sell themselves into slavery. We must not underestimate the human pain involved in such circumstances. Then there are those want to work, but can't work. They have something to offer but it seems trapped inside them.

"Unemployment" is a very particular, very real, very disorienting kind of suffering. It doesn't matter whether the cause is a diagnosis or a pink slip or a mysterious scrambling of the "magical numbers"--it remains an open wound. It is some relief if one can still acquire the necessities of life without entirely losing one's dignity. But since work is an expression of the person, the loss of work is an intensely personal experience. It causes a person to feel "unworthy," lacking in value. It causes them to question their identity. "I thought I knew who I was. Then one day I woke up and... it was gone!"

There are many proposals for helping unemployed people; some more worthwhile than others. But in every instance we must remember that we are addressing persons who have dignity, who are made to give of themselves, who are hindered and are grappling--in some way--with human fragility at a radical level.

Like every other human thing, work cries out for redemption.