Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Joining Up the Dots

I am a student of the meaning of work. The Bible does say, that if one does not work, one does not eat. In a sense, all of us are working, some for more money, others for less. Few gets paid at all, like most charities and social organizations. In fact, getting paid for charitable work sometimes makes one feels weird. Where then is faith? What is the relationship between faith and work? Before we get headlong into a series of endless debates over faith and work, it is important to note that when Paul wrote his statement in 2 Thess 3:10, that those who will not work not eat, he is writing against 'idleness.' He does not mean that only paid-jobs are considered work. What he is saying is "Never tire of doing what is right" (2 Thess 3:13). There are two types of narrow thinking that limits one's understanding of work. Firstly, one erroneously equate work only to paid-work and secondly, then work is only confined to a 9-5 situation.

1) Only paid-work is work.
We live in a world where people increasingly become more interested in 'success' rather than 'salvation.' Success related books and seminars are getting more popular, while talks about salvation rarely reaches half the room. If one is only successful in life when one has paid work, I guess in these hard economic times of retrenchments and job losses, there are too many failures that we lose count of them. If work is defined as one that is 'paid-only,' where is the incentive for people to volunteer community service to the needy? How are we going to cultivate a life of faith, when we need to see the money first before giving of our time? Who then will even bother to volunteer anything at all?

If only paid work is work, then housewives and students represent one of those most 'workless' communities in our society. Students not only fail to earn any income (those who do earn, make little), they pay exorbitant tuition fees as well! We can tell students to study hard, but can we honestly tell them to 'work' hard? If we define work in terms of paid-only activity, I guess we cannot equate 'study hard' with 'work hard.' Moreover, if one is simply studying hard for the sake of earning future money, this current economic depression is no encouragement or motivation to study hard at all. For new graduates with this mentality during this economic downturn, that only paid-work is work, the future is spelled 'gloom and doom.' Self-esteem if it is defined in terms of paid-work gets another rude slap in the face. The recent news of suicides in my former University are testament to such a problem. One was a student who slashed his wrists after stabbing his project supervisor. Another was a lab technician, and both suicides occur within a week. Now I am not saying that they have a wrong view of work. What I am saying is that when one fails to see any more reason to live for, suicide is a popular route of hopelessness. Thus, thinking about work remains an important consideration in the life of every worker, every student and all who walks this earth. Some of us are gifted with the ability to make money. Many are not. Few are called to help others, even at the expense of not getting paid for that help. Is this a reason for Jesus's saying:
"The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few." (Luke 10:2a)
I am a student, serving in church, and also taking on a huge amount of household chores. If work is defined as paid-only, I guess I am not working at all, even though I have a small stipend. I study hard. I serve diligently. I prepare extensively for church work. I collect materials for a new book I am writing. I take on large errands at home. All these evaporate into non-work if we define work narrowly into dollars and cents. Having said that, I do not mean that paid-work is unimportant. What I am saying is that we need to have a bigger picture of work.

2) Work is only 9-5
This brings us to the next narrow form of thinking, that when we work, we only do so from 9am to 5pm, or only within the confines of the office walls. The truth is, work is actually the use of our human faculties for the benefits and advancement of all mankind. An engineer can design a working model of a concept. A technologist can solve a computer problem so that others can run their software applications. A doctor can diagnose the health of his patients during the normal office hours. An expanded view of work must take into account the fact that work is the act of creating meaning out of our daily activities. This has tremendous repercussions. In many studies of work motivation, job satisfaction and significance of their work contributions regularly rank high up on the list. What is the point of working in an environment where one feels meaningless in what they are doing? What happens if there is no job fit? It is only a matter of time before the inevitable happens, either the worker quits unhappily, gets fired sensationally or continues to endure the drudgery of office hours. If work is only 9-5, how about after 5pm? Will one become less an engineer, a programmer or a doctor after 5?

This leads us to the next problem surrounding the 9-5 definition of work. What about 5-9? How about a parent fetching their children to school? What about kitchen and household chores? What about buying groceries so as to feed the family? What about cooking? Does that mean that one can sit back and relax after office hours? Dishes do not clean themselves up automatically. Even dishwashers do not have robotic arms to put dishes inside, or add their own detergent from the pantry. What about laundry? What about grocery? Childcare? Even paying bills requires one to be actively involved.

Joining the Dots in Our Life
This quote is particularly insightful:
"If you want to build a ship, don´t drum up people to collect wood and don´t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This statement points us to the importance of knowing the reasons for doing what we are doing. If one does not love the sea, one will fail to notice the different behaviour of waves and winds. When one fails to notice the unique features of the sea, one simply build according to schematics without relating to the practicalities of a seafarer's life. The word passion is relevant here. If one merely discharges his duties according to the tasks, one is simply doing his job. However, if one is passionate about his work, he finds ways to improve. He seeks better ways of efficiency and productivity. He teaches them to others, and tries to excite others about what he is doing. I will venture to say that if one is passionate about the sea, collecting wood, or building schematics takes on a whole new meaning altogether, beyond engineering, beyond design, beyond safety, toward love. Vocation. Bill Gates famously replied, when asked about why he puts in so much energy into Microsoft. He said: "It's fun."

Saint-Exupery is also well known for the popular children's book: "The Little Prince" which talks about the perception of life/human nature from the eyes of a child. As I was about to graduate with my first degree in 1989, I told myself to look for a career, not merely a job. It took me nearly 3 months of intentionally finding out about the reasons for work before I actually embarked upon a job hunt. The process while enriching for my soul, was hard for those around me. They berate my 'passive' mood in terms of making a living by earning money. They criticize my attitude of not doing anything to bring in the daily bread for the family. I understand where they were coming from. After-all, after so many years of study, should not I start to make my degree pay off? Things in life are not free. Rental, food, and daily necessities of life need dollars and cents to sustain. One may claim that money is not everything in life, but everything around us cost money. Perhaps, I have not explained myself clear enough to them. Eventually I got my first job, but it was not my first love. It was simply a job that feeds my desire to do other things, to study and to serve. It wasn't my calling, even though the bank statement thinks otherwise.

This brings us to a helpful saying from Woodrow T Wilson (1856-1924), the 28th President of the United States:
"You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget this errand."
(Woodrow T Wilson)
In one statement, we realize that anything we do, if it is simply an unrelated dot in our life, it remains an island by itself, disconnected from the world and everything else. There are books for little children for them to join up the dots on the page before seeing a full picture. What kind of dots are we joining? Are we joining the dots at all? Do we see the dots in the first place? Are we simply content in meaningless pokka dots, or are we living a life confident that we have God guiding our hands to join up the seemingly unrelated dots of our life, to form a picture of our vocation?

Yes some of us are called to be engineers, some teachers, others doctors and lawyers etc. In the Church, some are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers, all are needed to be part of building the kingdom of God. Regardless of what jobs or work we are called to do, all are called to be part of the community they are in to share and care for one another. What about you?


1 comment:

Stanley said...

ks, I read your thoughts in this blog and it makes me thinks about my current situation concerning work.

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