With Labor Day coming up, I thought this would be a good time to meditate on work- the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Work in and of itself is good. Consider these quotes by St. Pope John Paul II on work:
“Through all these surroundings, through my own experience of work, I boldly say that I learned the gospel anew.”
“Work is good for us. Through work we not only transform nature, adapting it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human beings and indeed in a sense become more human.”
“The Son of God became man and worked with human hands…. So we know, not only by reason alone but through revelation, that through their work people share in the Creator’s work.”
“The church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth…. The church considers it her duty to speak out on work…. It is her particular duty to form a spirituality of work which will help all people to come closer, through work, to God…. This Christian spirituality of work should be a heritage shared by all.”
But in the age of rampant workaholism and equally rampant arrested development, our approach to work can be troublesome. We are living in a divided time. We bemoan the same fault lines all the time- secularists vs. religious, leftists vs. right-wingers, millennials vs. just about everyone else. But there might be a more devious debate raging that we don’t often notice: the place of work in our lives. Total work vs. the quietists.
A friend of mine recently drove to a small, middle-of-nowhere town in Nebraska to watch the eclipse. As he waited for the big moment he was floored. The farmers’ machinery was buzzing along as if it was a normal day. Cars were bustling on the highway. People were working everywhere. Then the total eclipse came and there was silence for a full two minutes. Then as soon as the sun peaked out a little bit the whir of engines began again. He couldn’t believe that workers couldn’t pause even a full five minutes to appreciate the phenomenon. This is a society of total work.
I heard another story about a wealthy man from China who endured weeks of torture for housing a secret Catholic parish in his house. The authorities interrupted a mass going on in his house and he rushed the congregation and the priest out before they could get caught. Throughout all that torture he never gave up the name of the priest. The authorities let him go and he immigrated to America. He lived the American dream, opened his own restaurant, and started to see it thrive a bit. He put in long, hard hours. Understandably his daily mass attendance wavered, but incredibly a few years into his business venture he had completely lapsed in his practice of the faith. The speaker telling this story came to this conclusion: what torture could not drive out of a man the American culture did. Torture could not cause this man to become an apostate, but our American work ethic did. And we applaud stories like his all the time. This is a society of total work.
But at the same time we all know people who are so offended at not receiving a promotion every couple of years or a raise every month or so. They aren’t rewarded for just showing up and they take offense. Instead of keeping their noses down, working harder, and earning their raises and promotions they go off to another job. They don’t learn and improve, they escape, so they can better validate their own opinions of the injustice done to them. They won’t confront their laziness. This is the society of quietism.
I remember buying my first iPhone my senior year of college and purchasing a 2 gig data plan. The salesmen assured me that I would never need 2 full gigs. That was crazy. No one used their phone that much. Three years later I saw a video with the statistic that the average American will spend four full calendar year's worth of time on their phone in a lifetime. Four wasted years! We all basically die four years early. It takes time off of our lives, because that’s not life. This is the society of quietism.
Total work- meaning calculated by hours work, sweat poured out, goals achieved, productivity goals made. It is a frantic work from sun up to sundown until utterly exhausted, the workers collapse in a heap. Their state is constantly activity and equally constant exhaustion. Even, maybe especially, Christian workers are inundated with this philosophy, but it becomes even more assiduous with the illusion of the cross of Christ adorning it- the heresy of good works. Activism pushes Christ off the throne of their hearts. There’s a constant sense of anxiety in the worker's mind. Am I working hard enough? Should I be doing something else? I should, what else should I be doing? Who is working harder than me? Who notices? It goes on and on.
Quietism- a passive withdrawn attitude or policy toward the world or worldly affairs. The quietists are content to sit on their phones, tune out from outward reality, and in the Christian sense, to think that this is living on a deep level. They fly by life, expecting to somehow be absorbed into greatness without lifting a finger. These are tourists, the people who believe if they read a mountaineer's blog that they are somehow mountaineers themselves or if they read up on leadership practices that they are somehow a great leader. They’re not a people of sweat, but a people marked with deep anxiety that their lives may be wasting away because they haven’t achieved what they want with their lives.
These two profiles of course aren’t the only ones in our society, but they are two dominating strains. When they meet it is toxic. Judgement, complaining, guilt-tripping, backbiting, societal pressures, etc. abound.
I’m sure, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all identify with thoughts, opinions, and feelings from both aisles.