Work and Meaning

Happy Labor Day weekend! We started school last week and that makes this Labor Day very different from other Labor Day weekends. This is "just" another three day weekend.

Or is it? Last week Barry Schwartz wrote a piece in The New York Times, Rethinking Work. In this piece he says, "In the face of longstanding evidence that routinization and an overemphasis on pay lead to worse performance in the workplace, why have we continued to tolerate and even embrace that approach to work?" One might go further and say that not only have we tolerated and embraced that approach to work, but the true horror is that we are now bringing that approach to education.

I am appalled at the lack of "soul" in most workplaces. I am luckier than most, I know, because I have quite a bit of control over my work. I bring my "whole self" to work, and that includes my compassion, caring and "soul." I am also at the end of my career, not the beginning.

I have been listening to Victor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning.  At the age of 39, in 1944, he was transported to Auschwitz. He spent three years in various camps, ending up at T├╝rkheim, a "rest camp" where he served as a doctor, and from which he was liberated.

I cannot do the book justice in a few sentences but the basic idea is that we all need to make meaning of our lives. Frankl found meaning in his suffering; if the suffering had no meaning it would have broken him. Now, he was a psychiatrist, so perhaps that helped, but in the end, he suffered just the same as everyone there.

The Buddha reminds us that all life is suffering; we grow old, we get sick, we die, we lose those we love. Jesus suffered, for us and for the world. The idea that we make meaning out of our suffering gives me a sense of comfort.

What does this have to do with work? So many of us find work to be a burden, a cause of suffering. Would I work if I "didn't have to?" Yes, I would do something, something to use the gifts that I have been given. I feel sorry for those who, as Schwartz describes them, are either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" from their jobs, a category that a recent Gallup poll shows that 90% of workers fall into.

Krista Tippet interviewed Mike Rose at On Being this week-you can find the interview here.  Rose is a research professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He talked about watching his mother, a waitress for 35 years, at work. He subsequently interviewed her and she talked about how demanding, both physically and intellectually, her work was-scanning the restaurant to see who needs something, checking on orders in the kitchen, prioritizing her work. How many of us would see "only" a waitress? How many of us miss the fact that every job requires us to be present, body and soul?

So enjoy this Labor Day, and may you find meaning in your work.

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