Meaningful Work

Conditioning, learned reflex, runs very deep.  We show children that you have to “work” at school, which means doing boring stuff of invisible relevance rather than fun.  But of course those were the best years of our lives, and the adult world of “work”, we remember to show them, is even worse.  If we are to eat, let alone succeed, we have to sacrifice what’s playful, unorganised, creative, dreamy, enthralling, the things we can lose ourselves in.  We have to knuckle down to “work”.  We may compensate ourselves with brief immersions in sport, television, maybe gardening or books.  But “work” takes up most of the time, and it’s a drag.

Some people have the good fortune to be able to admit this.  They are free to say openly, like the bumper sticker, that “The worst day fishing is better than the best day at work.”  Or “Work is a four-letter word.”  They have jobs not careers.  If they ever dreamed of spending their working lives doing great stuff (say at age 9), they’ve long since grown out of such illusions.

For most of us, however, it’s a sin to admit this.  If you have ambitions, or even want to seem to have ambitions, it’s compulsory to say you love your work — no, better, be “passionate” about it.  Hence the heartbreaking charm of a job application I once saw, where the young person claimed to be “passionate about filing”.

Does it have to be this cruel?  It’s cruel precisely because work matters, isn’t it?  We deeply, achingly need to spend our time meaningfully, to do more than just pass the time.  Unemployment is in the end spiritually debilitating, even in countries that can and do look after the unfortunate.  One of the worst torments of prison camps is to be forced to work, day after day, on something you know will be destroyed, such as digging a hole one day and filling it in the next.   Dostoevsky put it forcefully: “If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.”

We can deny that work matters to us.  We can, come to that, deny pretty much anything.  It’s one of those great human capacities.  I’ve been told, vehemently to the point of rudeness, that I was just wrong to think meaningful work is important.  I guess we can redefine “work” so that it’s whatever gets in the way of enjoying life, but that doesn’t make the deep need go away.  Uninterrupted leisure is in the end unsatisfying, and most of us feel this even if we haven’t been able to test it by personal experiment.  Deep down, we know this need well enough, and that’s what makes working life so crap for so many people: it represents a denial or perversion of a deep human need.

A few people get to do work they actually love, that feeds them as well as putting bread and cheese on the table.  It has its bad days and sad days, it can be tough, but it’s worth it.  A few people get to be honest about their work being crap, and invest themselves in other life projects.  A huge number go on pretending, and maybe they really believe that the world has to be like this.

But that can’t be right, can it?  If work matters so much on so many levels, how come it’s mostly wrong?  Something’s rotten here.

That’s what I think.  You?

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