August 9, 2017 // Columns
The value of work
All of us are liable to complain of our work. We grumble at the hardness of our work, at its monotony and dullness, at the lack of time to rest and relax. We moan about how weary we feel. And we wish that we were wealthy enough to be free of work. But just imagine what perpetual leisure actually means. In your mind let me give you a large house in which to live, filled with comfortable furniture. In this house, you only need to nod at a servant and you will be brought dish upon dish of the most delicious food. Outside there is a garden filled with trees and shrubs, which bear sweet-smelling flowers. For a few hours, for a few days perhaps, you would enjoy being in such a place. But soon you would feel bored and restless. Your bones would become still for lack of exercise. Your stomach would swell with all that food. Your head would ache for lack of anything to stimulate the mind. Your mansion in which work was impossible would seem like a prison. God has designed us to labor for our bread; only in toil can our minds and bodies find contentment.
— St. John Chrysostom
Someone I know works for an extremely wealthy family. In fact, the parents in this family have made so much money from materially successful careers that neither them nor their children will ever have to work again. They live in a mansion. They have gardeners, maids, personal assistants, a driver, a nanny. The leisure time available to them is incredible. They take vacations all over the world. The children have every gadget, toy, lesson, object, outfit, equipment and article of clothing they could ever want or dream of wanting.
And yet, in their home, there is extreme emptiness and unhappiness. It’s a third marriage for one of the spouses. An assistant often wakes and takes the children to school while the mother sleeps, and she interacts with the children only infrequently. The father is distracted with potential business ventures; the mother with social events. The latter is angry most of the time, berating the help for any little turn of events not to her liking. The hired help takes the kids to their sports events. The children are not required to do any chores, are restless and often troubled.
Money can’t buy happiness, your grandmother probably told you. And she is right.
“You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee,” St. Augustine said. We cannot find satisfaction in leisure, or in things, as the example above demonstrates.
There is nothing wrong with being successful, even wildly successful; but we must remember our lives’ value does not rest on that earthly success. Even in the greatest material success we cannot find meaning, for as the catechism many of us memorized as children explains, our purpose (and only happiness will come from that purpose) is to “know, love, and serve God in this world, so we can be happy with Him in the next.”
My aim in sharing the above family example is not to unduly criticize that family, whose lifestyle might, sadly, be something we ourselves might choose, given our fallen human nature, if we found ourselves in similar wildly materially successful circumstances. It is also not to imply that all wealthy people will experience emptiness. Rather, my aim is to point out that idleness and wealth will never fulfill our needs and the purpose for which we were made. Those things will never make us happy. Our salvation is often worked out through labor and the daily grind, with its challenges and demands. Through daily labor our character has multiple opportunities to develop. It is easy to think that if only we didn’t have to work, our troubles would be over; that is simply not true; we need to work for our own happiness and fulfilment.
Ask most older married couples about the happiest times in their lives. Often they will describe a time early in their marriages when they scraped by and cut coupons, when their monetary supply was low but they were full of vigor, life, love and days packed with hard work.
Most of us do not live in either extreme of great wealth or great poverty. Most of us have a moderate degree of comfort as well as a good amount of stress. We may become frazzled and strung out, trying to figure out how to pay for this month’s bills or the next kid in college. We yearn for just an hour when the last bit of laundry is finally folded and the kitchen is clean and we can put our feet up.
St. John Chrysostom reminds us that our daily duties, whether we labor in a career and occupation outside the home or the full-time work within it, are essential for our development as human beings. A body of leisure is weak. Only the athlete is strong. Training develops muscle. There is no other way. And so it is with the spirit.
We would do well, as the fourth-century saint reminds us, to recognize the value of our work and to approach it with acceptance, organization, diligence, patience and most of all a happy spirit, dedicating it to God.
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