We all know people – in fact you may be one of those people – who live for the weekend. Every work place has people who function like countdown clocks perennially sharing the news of how much time is left before Friday rolls around. Mondays are the most painful day of the week because it is the longest time until the weekend, on Wednesdays relief is in sight and Friday…the whole day is a bustling excitement awaiting the clock to strike five. It is the weekend that gives such people hope and keeps them focused. Now of course everyone enjoys resting from work, that is natural, but are we really supposed to live our work lives just waiting to be set free like prisoners on weekend release?
For most of us, work will occupy a third of the prime years of our lives, and about a fifth of our entire lifetime will be spent working in some capacity. Work is therefore a fairly dominant part of most lives. The question is, should we understand work as something that merely gets in the way of our real lives, an activity that allows us to survive, or, should we consider work as a more valuable occupation, something that defines who we are and builds us up as people?
I was recently watching a documentary on the making of potato chips in the largest chip factory on earth. From the potatoes that arrived fresh from the farm we were led by one of the workers through the processes that churned out pallets of chips to soon be consumed from parties to playgrounds. What struck me was the commitment this man had to his work, he clearly felt a great passion for what he was doing and he took his responsibility seriously in doing his part to producing their particular product line. While at the end of the day, the man is not working to nurse the sick or relieve hunger (in fact his product is more than likely contributing to obesity in many places), that man in that chip factory is finding dignity in what he is doing. His work helps defines him and our work helps define us. While our value is not dependent on our ability to work or what type of work we do, our work allows us to contribute to humanity in some way. Work helps us to be included in the community of mankind. So long as the work is honest and upholds the dignity of the person, it does not even matter how great or small it might seem. From shoe shining to raising children to designing buildings, all work serves to build up ourselves and those around us.
To work is actually a privilege, just ask someone who due to disability or circumstance is unable to work. Few things are more harmful to the human spirit than the inability to contribute. Ongoing unemployment brings about a feeling of uselessness and can be debilitating. For those who do work, periods of rest are most certainly needed, but without work those periods of rest can become laziness and an unfair reliance on others to meet our needs. Even those who don’t need to work to survive are most often engaged in some sort of activity; no one can sit by the pool drinking cocktails their whole life.
Now of course not everyone can spend their career in their dream job and some jobs are most certainly less ‘interesting’ than others, but to know that in some sense we are contributing to society should allow us to find a goodness even in the most menial tasks. It is our capacity as human beings to work that distinguishes us from animals who only ‘work’ to fulfill their immediate needs. When we are engaged in fair and just work we provide for ourselves and our families, but perhaps even more importantly, we identify ourselves as part of the human family with the ability to offer something to others.
To live for the weekend, to see work as simply a means to pay the bills and have a good time turns work into something that more closely parallels the animal kingdom (of course one can also go too far the other way and worship work as if it is the sole purpose of their lives). Work is not a ball and chain that is bolted around our ankles for fifty years. Work is a unique opportunity to live within the human community and to leave our mark, however large or small on humanity.