March 27, 2007

Working Theories

Today's topic, work, is prompted by the Merle Haggard "Big City" lyrics I posted the other day.

One joke around the house is to recall Job in the Old Testament. Isn't that why they call them jobs?

But work can't be dismissed simply as a four-letter word you can say on a Catlick blog. Because even God worked, and He pronounced it good. He worked six days before resting and man's first day coincided with the Sabbath ("the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.")

Work is an interesting phenomenon. It seems to be presented both positively and negatively in the book of Genesis. It's presented positively in Genesis 2:15 - "The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it."

Who knew there was work in Paradise?

Care and cultivation is what we do every day in our jobs. All jobs are gardening jobs, that is a bringing forth of order from chaos. Removing weeds, tilling the soil, etc. The housecleaner brings order the chaos. The auto mechanic rearranges the raw materials and derived materials of God's creation in order to produce a working engine. The computer programmer arranges meaningless symbols into meaningful code.

That gentleman farmer imagery seems lovely but after the Fall work seems to become literally a curse: "Cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life...By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat."

That was mostly my image of work. It seemed reasonably accurate. Sweat...toil...uncooperative ground. Check...check..check.

When I was young I looked at work completely as a currency. At the tender age of 23, I'd cast a gimlet eye toward any proposed purchase. I'd calculate the future value (20 years at a healthy 13% rate o' return) of the cost of something and announce, "this would delay my retirement by six months! Would I trade this (fill in the blank) for six months of work?" It never occurred to me to look at work as a service performed for God.

In fact, I saw it all in "black helicopter" terms. The government, big business and ad agencies combined to accomplish their end - to get you to work and spend your whole life. The ad agencies tried to lure your money away. The government taxed you such that you'd be working for free until May of every calendar year. Big businesses paid just enough to cover expenses and provide a little spending money but not enough to allow you to radically underspend your income such that you wouldn't need them. The design seemed to be to pay you enough such that you could retire at precisely the point you were of decreased utility to them.

That seems unduly cynical and ignorant of how a free market works. It also surely contains a bit of buck-passing: radical underspending can be accomplished as Ham o' Bone proved. (I think he lived at the YMCA for awhile, or at least considered it; he consistenly spent only 30% his modest starting salary.) And what's wrong with a mobile home?

But one pastor recently said that the key to work is that we must know that we're adding to the common good so that it becomes a way of "praying always". (Didn't St. Benedict say 'work is prayer'? Or maybe not.) If we realize that we are doing God what wants us to do even if our jobs are not inherently "spiritual" in the sense that a priest, minister or rabbi's is, or even a doctor's or nurse's, that leads to contentment.

Our usefulness is often not immediately obvious in a bureaucratic age of specializations and "cogs in a wheel". The homilist said that some of us raise work to an idol status (the overly ambitious), others put up with it as a necessary evil to get a paycheck, others loathe it and want to retire as soon as possible, others see it as a means to an end, i.e. as a way to support charities. He said all of those views are wrong, pointing out how work is intrinsically good (Gen 2:15).

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