Why work? Because work matters

A year-and-a-half ago, I got a call from someone who said, “I heard that I should talk to you about work.” Over the conversation I found that his interest was in the meaning of vocation. A very thoughtful man who had spent most of his life on Wall Street, now he is a farmer in the Virginia countryside.

We got together awhile later, near his home about an hour west of Washington. Over the year or so since then, I have often gone to his farm, sometimes to help him with his cows, sometimes for more conversation about the nature and meaning of work.

Yesterday Meg came with me for the first time. I took a newly-published book with me, giving it to my friend. Not surprisingly the book is titled, Work Matters. I have watched its birth with excitement, seeing it as a wonderfully unique book. Its author, Tom Nelson, will come to Washington this week, and we will do several things together, all focused on getting the book out into the world.

As we talked, my friend the businessman-become-farmer asked me if I had ever read Why Work? by Dorothy Sayers. I have, and think it is as a good a statement about work as anyone has written. And I smiled, telling him that Meg and I had read aloud all her Lord Peter Wimsey novels the first year we were married. She is a favorite for many reasons.

The following is a short bit from her work on work, written in the years following World War II—but surprisingly prescient, seeing into our future, even into this past week as Europe’s economies are struggling to stay alive.

“It may well seem to you – as it does to some of my acquaintances – that I have a sort of obsession about this business of the right attitude to work. But I do insist upon it, because it seems to me that what becomes of civilization after this war is going to depend enormously on our being able to effect this revolution in our ideas about work. Unless we do change our whole way of thought about work, I do not think we shall ever escape from the appalling squirrel cage of economic confusion in which we have been madly turning for the last three centuries or so, the cage in which we landed ourselves by acquiescing in a social system based upon Envy and Avarice.

“A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.”

“The right attitude to work” is not most of all about our feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, but about something more, viz. the ways that our vocations are woven into the common good that in turn becomes the fabric of life for everyone everywhere, what older ones called our “common wealth.” For Europe, and for the U.S., the question of a society built on sand is not so very theoretical. With the collapse of Greece, the crisis of Italy, the implications of this for Germany and France, and its meaning for the U.S., our most astute commentators see us at the precipice of very great questions—and on some level, profound as they are, they are about work.

Which is where this little posting began.

Dr. Steven Garber is Founder and Principal of the Washington Institute and author of The Fabric of Faithfulness.

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