The Curse of Hard Work, Reconsidered

Reprinted from MISSION:WORK at Patheos. Check out one response to this question here at TGR by Benjamin Norquist.

So, if you’ve been reading this blog for long you know I have a lot of jobs. One is as an editor for The High Calling at The Theology of Work Project.  (THC, for a long time, was solely a production of The H. E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas….also known as the people who bring you Laity Lodge, one of the most beautiful places on earth. But I digress.)

Anyway, the day-to-day production of THC now happens at TOW, where I curate the archive, publish a weekly newsletter, and do some other stuff. Some of the “other stuff” is uploading sermon notes which were originally sent out to THC readers in the late 2000s and early 2010s (as a side note, being able to type those numbers means that I am now officially really old.)

One sermon I uploaded today, originally written by a pastor named D. J. Reed in 2010, was called “The Curse of Hard Work.” It’s framed as a response to a book called The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferrisswhich basically argues that we should all outsource the parts of our jobs we find boring or difficult, focus on our passions, and get it all done in as little time as possible so we can earn lots of money and spend time lying around in hammocks, or whatever floats your boat.

Now, I agree with Reed that this, in itself, is not enough to make life meaningful. Lying in a hammock can get boring. Floating a boat can even get boring, though probably not quite as fast. Outsourcing the boring parts of your job pretty much begs the question of who you are outsourcing them to and what that does to the outsourced upon. (Check your privilege, Ferriss, stat.)

But I was bothered by Reed’s conclusion. (This botherment, by the way, is not meant to extend to THC more broadly. Even before I got the gift of curating their archive, I was impressed by the nuance and lack of a “party line” they regularly brought to discussions of what you should do when work sucks.)

Reed ends up with the hoary story about the guys building a cathedral, except only the third bricklayer knows that’s what he’s doing. He concludes:

Those who champion the four-hour workweek would probably discount this story as simple-minded. They’d probably say that the poor brick-layers should establish a business plan and let others do the work while they can rest on a hammock in the shade. But it seems to me as if the first two are living under the curse, while the third has countered it. Yes, it’s hard, sweaty work; but it’s good work. It’s good because it has meaning. It’s good because it has purpose. It’s good because it transcends his fickle desires…. May we find a similar contentment, knowing the work God has called us to has meaning and purpose.

A few days ago, my husband called my attention to this stellar review at Comment of a book by Ben Sasse.  In so doing, he pulled out this startling statement by reviewer B. D. McClay: “Whatever else you want to take from Animal Farm, at least one moral is that those who spin tales about the virtuous nature of toil are usually not to be trusted.”  Go read the whole thing (come back afterwards, please); but it reminded me that, as someone who has thrown in my lot with the modern faith-at-work movement, the danger of making tales about the virtuous nature of toil self-serving is ever-present, and maybe more dangerous than the opposite one of pretending toil has no virtue at all.

Even if the bricklayer is finding purpose in his work, how do we know his work is justly administered? (Knowing medieval labor practices, I suspect the answer to that question is no.) How do we know he’s paid well? How do we know that encouraging him to be content in that work really contributes to the common good? Can we conceive of a common good that would ever call for the overthrow or at the very least the modification of unjust systems?

Contentment is a good thing, but if we encourage people to be content with their lot, can we ever stop hearing “opium of the people” echoing in our brains? (Maybe not in your brain, but in mine. A childhood lived in the 1970s and a mainline seminary education will do that to you.)  Is contentment just another word for privilege? Do I need to check mine?

Stay tuned.

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