man is the measure of work

While at Mangarara Staion, I had the good pleasure of sharing company with Doug, a forty-something farmhand who performs various tasks for Greg a couple days a week. Doug is your typical Kiwi bloke. Initially reserved, he’ll talk your head off at the mention of any of the following: dogs, extreme sports, or any aspect of working with your hands.

For instance, we hammed it up for the better part of an hour once about the unpredictable muscles that tire from thistle grubbing–moving on into the peculiar way one needed to handle the post-hole digger when laying into patches of the clayish dirt found just six inches below Greg’s fresh and loamy Hawkes Bay soil.

“Aw, I ‘adda dig eleven of ’em yesterday,” Doug says to me as I struggle to deepen the hole enough to stabilize the fencepost. “Shoulda seen me after ‘at.”

How many of you with “office jobs” talk about your work this way? How many of you talk about your work at all?

The fact that most of our society’s desirable occupations are so specialized that no one outside the relevant field can understand the nature of its work should give us pause. Whe the more reflectiveamong us actually do talk about work, we filter out all the technical details and answer either in relational terms or strictly in terms of sense-stimulus.

Imagine a husband asking his wife how her day at the office was. Her company is undergoing a merger with another firm, and she’s been appointed to manage certain sensitive accounts during the transition. It’s very stressful, and she’d love to share the intricacies with her husband. But she thinks, “What does my husband care about mergers and accounts?” So she answers: “Terrible–my boss is a jerk!” (Or: “It was boring. What’s for dinner?”)

Now, among Christians this problem is partly an issue of emphasis. We’re often taught to value only the relational dimension of experience; everything else is secondary. But the problem is also to do with our culture’s implicit doctrine of work.

This doctrine begins with a value-distinction between intellectual tasks and physical labor. The most important type of work, it tells us, is performed sitting down at a desk using the smaller, analytical sector of our brains to operate a computer. When that less important form of work, work with our bodies, is requried (God forbid!), it’s best done quickly and easily with the help of machines.

Such a value-distinction–in addition to its prejudice for technological assistance, necessary or not–reveals the radical individualism of the prevailing conception of work.

Work used to unite us; it used to tie us together as a community. Think of the harvest festivals of the European Middle Ages or of early American settlement. The party and the feast came after weeks and weeks of hard–yet communal!–labor to reap the “fat of the land.”

Wendell Berry wrties about participating in the tobacco harvest in his native Kentucky:

Housing tobacco is steady, heavy work, and a lot depends on doing it right. If the weather is hot, housing is also hot work, and the higher in the barn you are, the closer to the tin roof, the hotter you get. But in housing you work close together, changing places only as the wagons come and go and the barn it filled. And so you can talk.[…] you have talk of all kinds. You have a certain amount of grunting, cussing and complaining, for the little comfort there is in that; you have teasing and joking, anything that may bring a laugh; you have common memories told again with fresh commentary; you have advice of all sorts given at no charge to the young. If the work is miserable, you talk of pleasure. If you are hungry, you talk of food, reciting menus, recalling meals, and praising cooks. If you are tired, you talk of rest and the most restful ways of resting, of cool water and the shade of old trees.

Here we see that honest and true work–work that is useful to others and healthy to perform–begets sociality. Work of this kind needn’t ciphon out the relational element of its daily experience; it is naturally and necessarily social.

I’m not saying everyone ought to work with their hands. There are many essential jobs that require little of no physical labor, and I don’t wish to demean those jobs or the folks who perform them. All I’m saying is that we are alienated from our work in a profound way. Further, this alienation is possibly related to other sources of alienation we exerience in the modern world–alienation from the goodness of our bodies, alienation from right relationships with each other, and so on.

The retrieval of a biblical doctrine of work will require us to erect a new standard for what constitutes good and important work. Right now, the standard is dictated by the economics of efficiency and growth–growth, in most cases, beyond human limitations.

I propose a new standard: humanity.

Think about this. What united Doug and me (we had almost nothing else in common) was the ability to perform the same physical task. We both had two arms, two legs, and a strong back. That placed us in the same position vis-a-vis our daily experience on the farm. As a result, we were able to share in the glory–as well as the invigorating arduousness–of our work.

This means we will have to readjust our scale for what constitutes important and meaningful work. Remember what E.F. Shumacker said: “man is small.” Wondrous and majestic, but small nonetheless.

So shall our work be.


One response to “man is the measure of work

  1. i’m sending you a copy of my personal statement draft for grad school …creepy how similar this post is to my vision for architecture.

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