The Labor of Our Lives

The end of summer, the beginning of school, and the advent of fall is marked in this country by Labor Day. It seems like a suitable occasion to reflect on the meaning of work in its various incarnations.   Most work involves serving the needs of others, collaboration, and learning to do difficult or challenging or boring tasks in order that the work of the world may go on.

Homework.  Housework. Yard work. Volunteer work. Paid work. While all these kinds of work have a place in our lives, I want to focus mostly but not exclusively on those kinds of work that involve wages or salaries or the sale and purchase of services. My first job was in retail during my junior and senior years in high school.  I knew I wanted to go to college. My and my family could not afford to send me, and in those ancient days, scholarships were scarce.  I worked for a dollar an hour and managed to save $2000 by the time I left for college. The job had its satisfactions, the camaraderie of other working teens, the interaction with customers, the feeling of being useful and getting a paycheck.  But it was only a job. For some people, a job is something that pays the bills and buys the groceries while the real vocation is something else, such as homemaking, the arts, care giving, or community building.

My sophomore and junior years in college I earned money by grading freshman physics papers.  That too, was just a job for spending money.  It did teach me how little I liked grading paper.  Still, I knew I was headed for an academic career so that I could spend the rest of my life reading and learning and writing and teaching and thinking. I knew that academia was where I needed to be from the time when I started elementary school, even before I knew what the word academic meant. I had turned my attention from job to career and/or vocation.

A career involves more than a job. It means getting better pay and acquiring skills and credentials as well as doing things to advance your career, learning and applying new skills, and finding yourself in a competitive environment, which didn’t exist in either of my first two jobs.  A career, unlike a job, can get in the way of the rest of your life, your physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being and your relationships. Usually. you leave a job behind when you go home– that’s part of its appeal, a life that is not totally absorbed in work. The demands of a career create many of the tensions of midlife, that period when one is working full time and also raising a family and building a social network of friends and neighbors and co-workers.

Vocation evolves over a lifetime. Just as learning does not end with graduation,  neither does vocation, the place where your passions meet your gifts. Vocation is your answer to poet Mary Oliver’s question “what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” A sense of vocation may emerge in some nebulous form from our earliest years. One of the hardest tasks of parenting or mentoring is to hold up a mirror to a young person to see their passion and their gifts and how they might blend into a vocation.  Vocation is what Parker Palmer describes as letting your life speak.

Knowing that I wanted an academic niche as both career and vocation was not enough. Like lawyers and doctors, academics specialize, sometimes too much. My first semester, I fell In love with economics. I was drawn to economics because it was theoretical and applied and useful and mathematical all at the same time.   Most of all, it was the foundation for much public policy. I was passionately interested in politics, more from the policy standpoint than from the spectator sport part, although I liked that too. Like any good choice of a career that doubles as a vocation, economics was where my gifts met my passions.  That defined vocation for me.

My daughters went through their own vocational discernment.  My older two daughters knew very early that their passions were art and music.  My youngest daughter struggled more with defining her gifts and passions,; she has a career as a library director and a vocation as a photographer that takes up much of her spare time. Two of them followed careers that embodied vocations, while the youngest split her time between the two.

A career or a job are something from which you will, if you live long enough, eventually retire. Then the question becomes, how to fill that space.  After a few years of golf, bridge, and travel, most of my retired friends have looked for something more meaningful. .My late colleague, Jim Hite, used to say that he had retired from his career, not his profession.  That was also true for me. We just practiced it less full time and in different contexts than before.

 If a person hasn’t already found a vocation, it can and often does happen in retirement. I have a friend who spent her career in real estate management, but now finds her vocation in care-giving tour elderly neighbors. Retirees are often drawn into volunteer work that uses their skills and satisfies the passions in ways that their careers did not. It also gives them some flexibility they longed for during their working years.

In the feudal society of medieval Europe, birth and gender determined one’s station, serfs and peasants, craftsmen and merchants, knights, lords and king. Even then, there were deviants. The church was one of those places to find a niche for deviants, especially women. Over the centuries and around the world, women’s options were settled at birth. Only the brave and defiant managed to find expression for their gifts and passions outside of a very confined role, embracing what theologian Paul Tillich called The Courage to Be. Entering a convent offered options as intellectuals, teachers, nurses, theologians, and leaders. These options were not available to most women, who chose or were coerced into marriage as job, career, and vocation. Even in 19th century Britain, as we learn from reading Jane Austin novels, women’s task was to find a husband, manage an household, and procreate.

In the classical Hindu tradition, as in feudal European society, your vocation was not a matter of discernment.  It was assigned at birth.  Resistance was futile, as we learned from the Bhagavad Gita. It was age and gender and caste specific.  Children play until it is time to begin learning and preparing for their adult roles.  After the student years, it is time to embark on a career—there are more options now than when one was limited to peasant, merchant, warrior, or Brahman for men, wife and mother for women.  When you become old, your hair turns white, and you have seen your grandchildren, you are called to renounce worldly things and engage the life of the spirit.  This pre-ordained job-career-vocation track was mitigated by the promise that if you lived your assigned life well, you would get promoted on reincarnation.  And also the opposite. For traditional Christians and Muslims, heaven replaces reincarnation as the compensation for a lofe that did not let you find the joy of self-expression in vocation..

The pandemic turned the world of work upside down but also recalled an earlier time. For many centuries most families were farmers.  They worked from home without benefit of the internet.  Women and men were partners with each other and mother nature in making a living.  Industrialization and commercialization changed that pattern, and work became separated from home.

While there are many jobs, careers, and vocations that do not lend themselves to working at least partly from home, it is surprising how many there are. It not surprising how productive workers can be when they have less conflict between earning a living and living a life. Hybrid is becoming the new normal for many jobs, combining the benefits of less commute time and flexibility with the opportunity to collaborate in real time with physically present people.

After high school, many young people feel adrift, trying to figure out what next, what to do with their adult lives and what skills they need to acquire to find their niche in the world of work. They need mentors, but they also need to learn about themselves through work of most any kind. At the opposite end of the lifespan, many retirees find that they miss the companionship and collaboration that they had experienced in their work years and often seek out a form of work to develop relationships with co-workers and those whom they serve and to provide meaning and structure to their days.  For those in the middle, work in whatever form is a big part of the challenge of life balance, because those are also the years of marriage and children and competing demands for limited time.

For all of us, there is a tension between making a living and living an authentic and meaningful life, a lesson brought home by the pandemic, work from home, and a severe shortage of immigrants. With 3.5 percent unemployment, many workers have power to influence their wages, working conditions, and duties because they know they can find a better job. 

What does Labor Day invite us to think about the meaning of work Honest work, paid or unpaid, job, career, vocation, or all three, makes us better human beings. It builds community. Picking up garbage and delivering the mail, checking out of groceries and teaching our children, building our cars and mowing our lawns, caring for the sick, growing and harvesting crops, are just a few of the ways in which workers sustain our lives and our communities.

Labor Day offers an invitation to reflect on the role of work. To be thankful for the work we have been called or at least empowered to do and appreciative of the many kinds of work of others that makes our lives richer, safer, wiser, healthier, or more meaningful. To be mindful of those who struggle with the discernment about what to do with, as poet Mary Oliver says, “their one wild and precious life.” And to be advocates and supporters of those who struggle to find work that pays enough to provide for a decent life and hopefully other satisfactions as well.

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