Author’s Note: I wrote this piece in February 2002, but never got around to publishing it. It seems particularly appropriate in these times of economic crisis to do so now.
Some people work for pleasure, others for money. It’s a fact of today’s life that most adults—men and women alike—must work outside their homes to earn money, whether they want to or not.
Some of what they take in pays for necessities such as food, clothing, housing, and transportation. If there is some left, a portion is put away for needs that are considered important but not essential to immediate survival, such as education or retirement. Inevitably, no matter how little a person makes, some portion goes for non-essential “frivolity”: trips to the movies, dinner out, or a new video game for the kids.
Work itself is important, not merely the material benefits we recoup from doing it. Mankind is designed to carry on life in the context of an economy; in a utopian sense, each citizen works for the benefit of all. To isolate oneself from human society, to live the life of the idle rich or the terminally lazy seems unnatural. Each of us is given a gift of life by our Creator, something none of us asked for. As soon as we are able, we are taught to be productive, to do things that ultimately benefit others, and that bring rewards in turn to the doer. In this way we all learn to validate the reason for our existence, proving ourselves worthy of the free gift.
Men, more than women, tend to become preoccupied by their work outside the home. To many people, a man little is more important than the work he does for a living, regardless of whether he gets paid well for it, and in some cases, even if he is not getting paid at all. For such a man, his lifework becomes the mark of Who He Is, his legacy to be passed on to his family and posterity. It even becomes a label by which he is introduced to strangers: “This is Mr. Wiggenbottom, the CEO of Questionable Opportunities, Inc.” “I’d like you to meet Dr. Wheezenhack, who is a history professor at Noaccount U.” To be successful in work is considered by many to be successful in life, to be a successful man. To have the work taken away from a man is to have everything taken away: his identity, his purpose, and his life.
Many pursuits do not pay well. Aside from the need to make adequate provision for sustenance, making money is not the primary objective of many men. The idea is to make enough to allow one to continue doing the work he values.
Teachers who love to teach rarely do it for the money, because teachers usually make far less than good ones deserve. But they, like everyone else, have to make enough to live or else find other jobs. Those who teach well speak of the satisfaction of influencing students for good. Others accept the lower pay because of the free time they have when school is out.
Most musicians I’ve known have found the satisfaction of making music sufficient all by itself. All they want is to continue doing it. If they can support themselves or even become rich without compromising their art, then all the better. But to become proficient in music requires time and effort, and these needs usually preclude the possibility of holding another job. If a musician skimps on this groundwork, he doesn’t develop sufficiently to become an artist. Furthermore, playing musical instruments requires the development of extremely intricate motor skills, cultivated through constant, long practice from youth onward. If ignored for even a little while, these skills degenerate quickly, to the point they fall below a level that is useful for professional or artistic work.
Scientists, mathematicians, and creative artists become uncommonly absorbed by their work. Endless hours spent in deep intellectual isolation lead them to their keenest revelations, notions that may in turn be transformed into output: a theory, a proof, a drama, or a song. Such flashes rarely occur in a distracted state, or in a work span fraught with interruptions. Paul McCartney, one of the most publicly sought-after persons on the planet, and a man known for his strong work ethic, said in an interview:
To be a songwriter, and to do my kind of work, you’ve got to be doing nothing. You’ve got to have a lot of time to yourself, which in most people’s lingo is doing nothing. You’re not working, you’re not working out, you’re just sort of sitting around. What a great job definition! Mine only requires a guitar and doing nothing. And I find that when I am doing nothing my favourite way of doing nothing is to make some music out of it. But you have to have some space for stuff to come into your brain. If you’re sitting in the office all day thinking about business things it is not as conducive as having some time to yourself.
Today, few people have the luxury of circumstances that Paul McCartney has to be able to do such work.
A form of work above all others is the self-sacrificing sort that is required to serve our Creator with a whole heart. Many of my closest associates openly declare that the work of teaching Scriptural truths to others is of such surpassing value, with the highest possible yield in personal satisfaction, that even family heads with a need to provide for others in addition to themselves willingly put it ahead of all other forms of work, in some cases accepting even menial jobs by which to make their livings, in order to make sufficient time to pursue spiritual goals.
Regardless of the sort of work that we engage in, whether by choice or out of necessity, it remains true that work itself is noble, and that there is no shame in any job that needs doing, no matter how lowly.
All that your hand finds to do, do with all your might, for there is no work nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the Grave, where you are going.—Ecclesiastes 9:10