We as Americans, if we are the type who work, will spend much of our lives working. Sometimes we work so much we don’t stop to think about why we work and what our work means. Work really is a way of life. Rest is important too but our work is an important representation of who we are. It doesn’t matter what type of work we do, how much money we make, or if we even make any money at all. If we view our lives as important, then our work will be important. Whether it’s mental, physical, or both how we approach our work will have a huge impact on how healthy we are.
Based on the enthusiastic feedback I got in regards to my new book, Movement & Meaning, and the sections in it which emphasized the importance of work, I’ve decided to write some long-form essays on the topic of Healthy Work. Look at these as first and foremost as a defense of the nobility of work, from the simplest of tasks to the most complex engineering. This series of essays is coming along at the right time. I just read that the American Middle Class is now a quickly shrinking minority. In other words, it is getting harder and harder as workers in America so it’s good to take a step back and look at work.
“What Ranks Above All Else For Economic and Political Reconstruction Is a Radical Change of Ideologies. Economic Prosperity Is Not So Much A Material Problem; It Is, First Of All, an Intellectual, Spiritual, and Moral Problem.”
-Ludwig Von Mises
The preceding figure is a mythical Ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail. A dilemma we face in the modern world is that of a value-less society. A society which values nothing could eventually destroy itself like the Ouroboros because it will have no legs to stand on, no basis in reality, no meaning, and will have nothing to declare or to defend or fight for as “good” or “bad”. Rational thought, grounded in reality and morality, require judgement and discriminate thought, or in other words to say something is good or bad we must first say that good and bad exist. Equality and tolerance are indeed important, as part of a larger framework of values, but when it comes to work we must be willing to say that work is without a doubt good, in its own right.
As common sense as it sounds to say that “work is good”, if a modern liberal society values only equality and tolerance then we must tolerate non-work, or slothfulness, as an equal “good.” So in other words we must move beyond equality and tolerance to a more inclusive and comprehensive view of what constitutes a “good” society in order to truly value work. We must ensure equal protection and opportunity, but not outcomes. We must tolerate behaviors and people we find difficult to deal with, or disagreeable to our tastes or our own morality, so long as they aren’t illegal and they don’t endanger our community.
If, on the other hand, equality and tolerance are all we have, then to say this is “good” or this is “bad” we will always be violating our values and not be able to say that work is good or bad one way or the other. For to tolerate everything is to endorse anarchy, and to ensure equal outcome is to render life meaningless- and so Ouroboros swallows its tail, and at the end of the Super Bowl no one wins. All the same, when we say “men should work”, or “it’s good to work” we are making a moral judgement which bumps up against the neo-liberal ideology of non-judgemental thinking and its core values of equality and tolerance. Because if we say “men should work” we are saying that men who don’t work or won’t work and who are a drain on society should not be treated as equals to working men, nor should willfully slothful behavior be tolerated in any significant degree. We must, in other words, treat working people and slothful people as unequal and existing on differing planes of moral existence.
In order for work in and of itself to be deemed good and meaningful, we must rationally judge sloth or perpetual inaction to be bad, or unhealthy. Without bad, there is no such thing as good, and vice versa. In order to judge or to discriminately choose between two or more options, we must think and be rational. We must make a choice about what is good. We must decide how to act, think, and judge in our own best interests but also in the best interests of the community and world in which we live. When it comes to work, we must ask, what is best in life? President Bill Clinton once said “Work is the meaning of what this country is all about. We need it as individuals. We need to sense it in our fellow citizens, and we need it as a society and as a people.”
When I ponder work and what it means I think about many things. I think about the essence of man’s existence, the purpose of man’s life, and what is abhorrent, repulsive, and noble. I think of the satisfaction of being mentally and physically tired at the end of a work day. I consider the satisfaction of looking in the mirror and saying to myself: “I did the best I could. My work is done, for today.” I consider the guilt I feel when I know I could have done better. Most of all, when I think of work, I think of values.
When I was growing up, I was taught ancient wisdom by my family and mentors and how to apply it to my life. Immature, and morally and spiritually disillusioned by my 6 years of scientific graduate study and my grasp of the rational world, at times I discarded the wisdom of the past and pursued the methods of science, and frankly hedonism in some instances. Erroneously coming to view a spiritual and moral existence and rational scientific thought as mutually exclusive, my life became somewhat of a meaningless abstraction. By my embrace of unimpeded rationalization, life started to lose form because the way I saw it either everything in life mattered or nothing at all did. For a while, nothing did.
I forgot to some extent the inherent wisdom, beauty, and rejuvenating power of what I would now call core human virtues and values like loyalty, respect, service, self-restraint, courage, discipline, compassion, bravery, and honesty among others. Without these there is nothing- no meaning, no joy, no goodness, only self – destruction. Many others in the post-Darwinian Age have probably experienced similar self-destructive urges. After a long struggle, I decided my life did mean something, all of it, and that my work did as well.
As changing as the world may be, it is built upon something. In order for anything to become, it must first be. Values are built upon revealed truths of the past about what is best in life or good. Some things in this world truly are better than others. Values allowed civilization to be built and sustained and they will always be important. Values created man and allowed him to evolve and become more self-aware. Men made valuable alliances, they were loyal and cooperated and so they survived.
Some political agendas portray capitalism as bad, and it most certainly has a downside when corrupted. Capitalism and the technologies of finance aside though, trade is itself one of the single greatest forces for peace, stability, survival, and progress the world has ever known. Work, craft, and specialization are defining characteristics of man. Men worked, cooperated, traded, progressed, and they survived. CS Lewis, in his “Abolition of Man” writes of a future time when men may no longer be men at all- men without chests he calls them. Like the branches of a tree attacking the roots, man as we know him may not survive if he gets too far from the roots of his existence, if he forgets the lessons learned from the past about what is good. Without values, man might destroy himself.
Work, if it is to be a healthy endeavor, requires us to make judgements. We must say that work is good. We must say that man was made to work, trade, and cooperate. Whether the community banker, the forklift driver, the math teacher, the plumber, the IT Specialist, or the office janitor we must recognize the inherent moral goodness of all work. We must also say that a lazy man who does not work is not a good man. It sounds harsh, but if work is truly a noble way, then laziness and sloth, and a non-working draining economic resources from others, without contributing at all, must be by definition ignoble. For work to be healthy, it must be meaningful, and meaning comes from values. The worker should be proud of his work and his chosen way of life.
Work is a way of life. Work is good. It is a way of being, a rational, intellectual, spiritual, and moral choice, and a way of seeing the world and our place in it. We choose to work and create value, or we choose not to.
“Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark raving mad.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky
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