I once read an article where the author questioned the social convention of introducing people by their name and occupation. She pointed out that it can be a limiting way of getting to know a person, because you immediately make assumptions about them based on their job. Instead of delineating a friend by their employment, she suggested, we ought to tell others about their best characteristics, or amazing things they have done outside work.
Yes, one is so much more than what one does—but one’s job does make up an important part of one’s identity. That is how some surnames came about—Smith, Taylor, Brisbane even (“break-bone”, probably a surgeon, or a barber who performed surgery). What you spend most of your time doing and thinking about will form your habits and your character. Your job is also part of how you contribute to society, the body politic—engineers, lawyers, road-sweepers, garbage collectors, teachers, etc., are the various organs and limbs of human communities. Each part is specialized and essential to the functioning of the whole.
In Tony Hendra’s book Father Joe, the eponymous Benedictine monk ponders the effects of the satirist’s work on his soul. Hendra confesses: “I’ve trained myself in paths of thought—’ruts’ might be a better word—that reflexively denigrate certain people. People I don’t agree with or have contempt for or whose motives I suspect. I must admit I haven’t considered for years what effect that might have on my own moral state.”
What we do changes who we are, and what we believe; it forms our perception of the world. Those who work in family law tend to be cynical about marriage, because they see the fallout from the worst cases. Prostitutes tend to have a negative view of men, experiencing firsthand how they give in to their animal impulses and treat the human being in front of them as an object for their own pleasure. Soldiers suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from the violence and death they witness and partake in.
Portrait photographers look for the beauty in people, even the lowliest or forgotten. Musicians discipline themselves in order to produce exquisite sounds that bestir the most hardened soul, moving people to tears, expressing the deepest longings of the human heart. Sportsmen too discipline themselves, testing the limits of the human body and willpower. Teachers become experts not only in their subjects but also in drawing out their students’ natural abilities, challenging them to learn and grow as a community that will someday reform the limbs and organs of human society.
A friend asked me if I had a goal in life. I responded that I hoped to get the Catholic media job for which I had applied. He said, “That’s short term, but what about long term?” I realized that to him, as to so many in society today, a job is just a job, interchangeable, disposable, not something to dedicate your life to.
Be that as it may, even if we no longer live in a society where one works for the same company for decades, but move from job to job, we can still offer our work up as prayer, in the Benedictine tradition: Ora et labora. Then, our whole lives, our very being, will be a gift of love, a hymn to God, fulfilling our ultimate telos and giving purpose to everything we do.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same;
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the father through the features of men’s faces.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
– William Wordsworth
This article was published in the October 2016 issue of the Melbourne Catholic magazine.