Growing up in southern Vermont I was always nudged into seeking full time summer employment. From the age of 13 I had to be ‘productive’ in some way during vacation other than cycling through the hills and valleys, swimming in lakes and streams or simply staring at trees. I was assured by familial authorities that this would build character. This meant doing all sorts of odd jobs: mowing lawns, demolition in an apartment building, assembling mountain bikes, running the cash register in a music shop, schlepping big reams of paper around at a book press. Of all of these, one in particular sticks in my mind as the impetus for my reflecting upon the nature of human labor. This was a classic factory job. We’re talking big hot machines, loud closed rooms with no windows, boxes and tape. The company made bottles and brushes for cosmetic products. Even though this takes me back 25 years I still have brand labels like Maybelline and CoverGirl seared into my memory. I never thought I would contribute to the consumption of lipstick and mascara but strange things happen.
I recall how the people working there were interwoven with the machines. Human hands filled in gaps and were expected to perform as tirelessly and repetitiously as these hulking steel contraptions. I felt like I was staring in a remake of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Those weary eyes of the denizens of this foreign world always greeted me kindly and would emphasize how I should stay in school and apply myself at my studies so that I not end up where they were for the past 20 or 30 years. It worked. Nothing like spending 8 hours a day packing 15,000 eyeshadow containers into boxes 10 at a time as they came off the assembly line after having their labels stamped on them to make school attractive. My total range of motion for most of the day was often a step or two to the right or left. Mostly my arms would extend, hands facing upwards as this belt would drop the colored glossy vessels into them. Then with a 90° swivel of my hips, I would lay them in the shipping packaging in neat little rows. Repeat, Repeat. Repeat.
After a few 40 hour weeks of this my 16 year old brain began hallucinating in French. It was likely my first out of body experience. I was there and not there at the same time. Zombies may looks cool in horror flicks but turning into one in real life redefines boredom. I began contemplating what it means to work, to have a job, to pursue a career. Having been well acquainted with workaholics, I wondered what drives people and what keeps them going? Surely this kind of work was done out of pure necessity? Jobs were pitched to me as a means of survival. Hard work would enable a person to provide for self and family. It was both a personal and social responsibility.
This tough message made me want to flee for the outback and live in a tent or worse to retreat back into infancy and let others take care of me. Yet, I detected another message amidst the various parental broadcasts especially as college applications were starting to become a topic of conversation in our home. ‘What do you think you would like to do?’ Future choices revolved around more than the minimal considerations of food and shelter. I had to assess my aptitude for various career paths (forest ranger or philosopher? decision, decisions…) and along with that practical side, there was the question of my personal satisfaction or ‘wanting’ or such an occupation. The first inkling of an idea of self-actualization through creative expression was germinating within me and I sensed a fundamental tension between work as work and work as play. Certainly in the 1980’s there was no shortage of examples of people who got paid to do things which looked fun but would not have passed as work at all in a previous generation. It’s hard to imagine being a punk rock musician or street poet, indie filmmaker or amateur deep sea explorer in the same light as my summer coworkers in this factory.
One of the great arcs of the drama of humanity has involved our relationship with work. Hearkening back to the Genesis narrative, work is seen as a punishment for the eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Edenic existence meant all was provided for naturally which is perhaps just another way of saying that all of our daily needs were automated. After millennia of servitude to back breaking labor as an unavoidable fact of life for the super majority of people, we are beginning to realize that alternatives are possible. Increasingly, in an age of abundance that defines modernized societies, we are decoupling work from its original meaning of providing the basics. While by no means does this apply uniformly (although there is some evidence that the world is getting flatter) we are hearing more and more people say that they no longer need to work but rather choose to work. Yes–this can be for the simple reason of wanting to ‘keep busy’ but there is another more profound realization happening at the same time: we enjoy working.
Granted we have to find the right job, but for those who identify so strongly with what they creatively do, they could never see themselves doing anything else. If you are one of those with the good fortune to be able to say with all honesty that you love what you do and you would still do it even if you became unimaginably rich and never needed to collect another paycheck, then you have experienced the ‘end’ of work. My intention with the word ‘end’ is not the cessation of work or that one’s job becomes obsolete, but rather, the ‘goal’ or ‘higher calling’ within the work itself. In the classic of Jewish mysticism known as the Zohar there is an expression which usually applies to spiritual service, but which can be extended to cover all aspects of life: “there is no work like the work of love (lait pulchana k’pulchana d’rachimuta). In a more contemporary rephrasing, we all understand the significance of a ‘labor of love.’ To raise the stakes to a teleological level, perhaps the entire thrust of history is to take us from dreading our jobs under the weight of chains to the freedom of self-expression through activities that imbue our lives with great meaning and enjoyment. Whether our work defines us or not remains to be seen, but assuredly, we are redefining work.
For Part Two, we will tackle the dialectic of work and rest as they are embodied in the concepts of building the world and observing the Sabbath.