By Greg Forster; part four of a series.
If you’re suffering, there is power in saying that you’re suffering. That, or something very close to it, was a comment made about blues music in Ken Burns’ documentary series “Jazz.” One way we can help people suffer without helping them suffer is simply by telling the truth about suffering in work.
Part of the church’s mission is to proclaim truth. That goes double for whatever truth our culture doesn’t want to face. Our culture doesn’t want to admit that work involves a lot of suffering.
Irony alert: I did a search for images related to “suffering” on a popular free-image service. The first page of results contained no fewer than eight happy, cheerful graphics announcing DO WHAT YOU LOVE. Related to suffering, indeed!
Faith and work leaders will appreciate the irony. So much of people’s suffering is work-related , and our culture’s most common answer to suffering in our work is “do what you love.” That’s a destructive message if it means, as I think it generally does, “think about different kinds of work and see which ones give you happy feelings when you think about them, and then go do those.”
“Do what you love” calls on people to live in a false reality – a narcissistic fantasy in which we aren’t called to suffer in our work. The claims of God and neighbor on our work are negated.
But we can’t counter “do what you love” with “love what you do.” Not if that means, as I think it generally does, “be complacent about your work situation and learn to accept it just as it is, indiscriminately.”
That’s also a false reality – not a narcissistic fantasy but a naive one. Rather than the claims of God and others, here our own claims on our work are negated. Suffering, frustration and injustice are normalized.
In my youth, I hated it when people tried to comfort me in times of suffering by telling me that many, many other people also suffered the same way I did. I remember asking, not just in my mind but out loud (to the great frustration of my would-be comforters): “Why would it make anything better if everyone else is also miserable? Doesn’t that make it worse?”
Instead of “do what you love” or “love what you do,” we must say: “do what love requires.” This is the truth of work, and it invites us to tell the truth about suffering in work.
Loving people involves suffering. The suffering is neither avoidable (“do what you love”) nor acceptable (“love what you do”). The suffering is not avoidable because love is not avoidable – not in any life worth living. But the suffering is not acceptable because it is the love, not the suffering, that we are really made for.
This situation is, of course, ultimately intolerable. That’s why people don’t read the book of Job for fun. The impossibility of our situation drives us to the cross, our only hope.
But part of the hope created by the cross is the community of truth it creates; a community that “lives in the truth,” as John put it in his first epistle. Human cultural systems always create illusions about suffering in work, whether (as is typically the case in modern cultures) the illusion that suffering is avoidable or (as was more typically the case in older societies) the illusion that it is acceptable. It is the gospel and the community of Holy Spirit transformation that the gospel creates – and only this – that makes it possible to tell the truth about suffering.
And in that truth there is power. In 1978, Vaclav Havel wrote a book about how he was going to overthrow the Communist tyranny in Czechoslovakia called The Power of the Powerless. He argued that “living in truth,” a phrase that the deistic Havel consciously borrowed from John, is a power that the so-called “powerless” will always possess.
Those who have a stake in the system must conform to its official lies, and for that very reason – in order to increase their dependence on the regime – the system actually goes out of its way to make its followers tell lies on its behalf, even pointless lies that serve no purpose. The real purpose of the pointless lies is to keep people trapped in the tyrannical system. (Any resemblance between the methods of Communist totalitarianism and today’s U.S. presidential campaigns is strictly coincidental.)
By choosing to abandon dependence on the system, the powerless gain the power to live in the truth. All human beings inherently desire truth – one of the world’s oldest observations, a starting point for both the Bible and Aristotle – and under oppressive systems it is only the so-called “powerless” who have that power.
And – Havel wrote – when enough people see their neighbors living that way and decide they want to live that way, too, the system will collapse.
He wrote that in 1978, and proved it in 1989.
It remains true today, wherever people are suffering under systems of oppression and exploitation. Whether it’s a tyrannical boss in a small workplace or a national economic system rigged by politicians and crony capitalists, only living in truth can give power to the powerless.