The idea of using “work” as the theme for the upcoming issue of AweWakenings was actually the result of a few unsigned communiqués we’ve been receiving from an obviously disgruntled reader. The theme on all of them has been “you should go out and find honest work like the rest of us”. I’m fairly certain I know what dishonest work would be, and I’m sure you do, too; the real issue, then, isn’t one of honesty, but one of what is oddly referred to as “gainful employment”.
I say “oddly”, because those who hold jobs in today’s economic marketplace are paid wages, but very few of them actually gain much of value. Most workers are struggling to keep up with their bills. Most workers are saving very little (if any) money for the future. Most workers are working more hours, bringing home less money, and are taking less vacation than ever before.
Workers who spend money beyond the necessities of life find the techno-wonders that fill their homes do not bring them lasting delight or any sense of fulfillment. In the competitive race for status and pleasure, many of those discretionary dollars chase after alcohol, drugs, food, illicit pastimes, and worse.
Most workers are not happy.
In spite of extensive marketing efforts to entice us to work more so we can spend more, the sad fact is that in 2004, at the same time our national economy increased 3.8%, the number of people in the US living below the poverty line increased for the fourth year in a row [US Census Bureau Report 2004].
All is not well in business-land.
Common usage of the word “work” seems to mean the kind of job where one leaves home (or at least moves to a home office area), and then performs tasks that most likely do not fall into the category of personal, passionate commitment. If one is lucky, the work might be interesting on some level; however, many workers are putting in long hours at tedious work.
Such work benefits the owner of the business — not the worker and not the customer. Gainfulness is so great for the owner, in fact, that over half the Earth’s people live on $2.00 day or less, while the combined assets of the three wealthiest people in the world exceed the combined GDP of forty-eight countries.
Apparently things aren’t so hot in economics-land, either.
The foundation upon which this strange concept of work is built is worse than shaky; the assumption that industry can continue to increase production (and therefore profits) is a fallacy; the average American uses five times our fair share of the Earth’s resources. If everyone on Earth lived as we do here, we would need four additional Earths. The carrying capacity of the Earth is already stressed; every human being uses an average of 5.2 acres of biocapacity, but Earth’s limit is 4.7 acres per person. Here in the US we each use 24 acres per person.
The status of environment-land is virtual disaster.
Is there no good news? Thank God, there is — and it circles around the idea of work.
What if we reinvented our concept of work, tying it inextricably with play and taking into account sustainable living, social justice and spiritual fulfillment? This would require a great deal of commitment, creativity, and bravery — but humans have proven over and over that we are capable of amazing accomplishment when we understand that the effort and the reward are noble.
It requires that we examine our own participation in a system that is self-destructive; then we must lay aside our old assumptions and step away from a lifestyle we believed was our only option. We may hear complaints and ridicule from our neighbors, but march ahead we must.
We Christians have a worthy example: Jesus. This carpenter gave up gainful employment at the peak of his career and spent the rest of his life trying to awaken others to the self-destructive path they had chosen. Whether it was tax collectors, church officials, or money-changers, Jesus took them on. His passion for social justice and spiritual fulfillment was his work. If reliable crystal balls had existed 2000 years ago, Jesus might well have tackled environmental sustainability as well; but in those days no one could have foreseen, much less believed, that humans not only would be able to, but in fact would, cripple the Earth’s ability to sustain life.
Jesus was not paid for this work, and more than one person thought he was foolish, perhaps even selfish, to abandon the safe, predictable life of a Galilean craftsman.
As religious in the twenty-first century, we are called to follow the example of this young rebel. In our Community, we have taken on the joyful work of discovering what it means to live sustainably ourselves; to live so that social justice might be experienced by all; to live so that all may seek and find deep meaning in their lives; to live in an environment of shared learning with others so all might benefit; to live so that the unborn wonders of the future might have a chance to blossom into reality on this fragile Earth, our only home.
We believe this is worthy work. Theologian Thomas Berry calls it the Great Work. In fact, it is the opus Dei of our time.