The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

Imagining Healthy Work

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These excerpts from Jeffery Bilbo’s lecture at Spring Arbor University’s annual Focus series gets to the heart of why “good work often seems impossible…”

I’ll begin with a rough definition of good work, one we can refine as we proceed. Good human work participates in God’s redemptive work; thus it is our loving, healing, and humane acting out the image of God that we bear, the image that obliges us to be God’s representatives to his creation.  Thus, as Wendell Berry argues, bad work is actually blasphemous: “To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God” (“Christianity and the Survival of Creation” 104). This may seem like an extremely high view of work, and that’s because it is.

Such a high view of work, however, encourages us to consider how we might actually fulfill the gospel’s call to love God and to love our neighbor. While we often give lip service to these commands, I’m not sure we consider all their implications. For starters, loving our neighbor would mean knowing them and participating in an economy with them. It’s hard to love someone if you don’t know them or work with them; such work is the physical means through which we enact our love for those around us. Yet the way our economy functions today is more global than local, or at least it appears to be, and this makes practicing any sort of real love for those with whom we share an economy quite difficult.

Now “economy” sounds like a technical, abstract word, but it really just means “household,” it’s the study of how we live with those with whom we share our household. Actually, it’s also related to several other words, like ecology—the household of all creatures—and diocese—the jurisdiction of the local church—and it comes from the Greek word “oikos” that refers to the church or the “household” of God in the New Testament, yet many of our economic relations no longer take place within a household or even a diocese. And this divorce of economy from household, this abstraction of our work from our neighbor, is at the root, I think, of what makes good work so difficult for us to imagine.

…part of this difficulty is simply due to the fact that we live in a fallen world; our work is subject to frustration. We will always need people to do the mundane working of weeding, taking out the trash, cleaning the toilet, and those other tasks that are seen to be beneath human dignity. Yet the point of life isn’t to escape such menial labor, it is to find the work to which we’ve been called, work that serves the healing of others. This work may be dirty and not very interesting—Christ’s last task before his crucifixion was washing his disciples’ feet—but if it’s work that cares for those we love, it can still be rewarding and fulfilling. Such work is part of our condition and our calling, and it becomes demeaning only when we ask some people to spend their whole lives doing repetitive, dirty, or destructive work so that others can just do interesting and rewarding work.

Thus I’m going to argue that the chief cause of the bad work that prevails in our economy is overspecialization…This move to specialize in order to maximize originality, in order to contribute something unique, structures much of our economic system. Of course the problem with this is that the more qualifiers you add, the more narrow (and often irrelevant and abstract) you have to get in order to be scarce and thus able to command a high salary. If I can do something better than anyone else, even if it’s a very narrow, particular something, then I’m likely to be able to charge a lot of money for my services. Thanks to the way supply and demand operates, we pay super-specialists a lot and we pay less for those jobs that may be more important, but not as specialized. This is why athletes who are consummate specialists can earn a lot of money for being able to throw a little round ball one hundred miles per hour, or for being able to put a ball through a metal hoop. Yet we pay much less for work which is arguably more important to the wellbeing of our society—like growing food, collecting garbage, maintaining roads, or teaching children—because these kinds of work can be performed by more people and don’t require specialists. Specialization puts you as a worker on the right side of the supply-and-demand curve, but it can also lead to disease.

The problem with overspecialization is that as the pressure increases to become super-specialized, people will push themselves to be deformed and will do more damaging work in order to command a higher salary. So we have NFL linemen who have to be almost obese to perform their jobs, or we have the rampant problem of steroids in athletics where people choose short-term gains in strength over long-term consequences. Even people who want to do good work find themselves thwarted by the fragmentation such specialization causes. So we have farmers who can’t make a living growing healthy food in a sustainable manner, and instead they must maximize the yearly yield of whatever monoculture currently offers the best profit margin, regardless of what this does to the health of their land, their ecological community, or the people who eat this crop. We have doctors who go into medicine hoping to heal people and end up treating one specific disease (and filling out tons of paperwork) rather than working toward their patients’ health. We have politicians who go into politics to seek the common good and find they have to spend all their time raising money and navigating power plays rather than serving their communities. We have university professors who know just one narrow field and can’t teach an introductory course or practice wisdom because they are so focused on their research specialty. This frustration in our work is not only part of the curse, part of the reality that our labor is doomed to frustration, but it is also a result of a fragmented, overspecialized, diseased economy. Thus we should not simply accept an industrialized economy as an inevitable tragedy and capitulate. Rather, we should seek to make as many jobs as possible healthy, able to serve God’s kingdom.

So what can we do? Almost 1500 years ago, faced with a corrupt economy and a failing empire, a young man decided to form a small, intentional community of Christians which could be self-supporting while doing the most important of all Christian work, prayer. Benedict began one of the most important church movements when he established his monasteries, and while we may not all want to join a monastery right now, monasteries may be able to teach us much about how we can imagine good, redeeming work.[1]

Benedict believed that faced with economic and political fragmentation, at least some Christians needed to form healthy communities to model and preserve a lifestyle that witnessed to God’s Kingdom. These communities would not only need to pray and worship, but also to be self-sufficient, so in his Rule, he emphasizes the need for all the monks to work growing food, cooking, and cleaning. So while the monastic community exists to do the work of liturgy, the work of prayer, they do not specialize so much that they spend all their time in structured prayer. Indeed, the Benedictine motto, ora et labora, indicates the unity Benedict saw between these two practices. This integration of work and prayer improves both: prayer makes their physical labor more reverent and careful, and their work offers them opportunities to act in accordance with their prayers. Thus Benedict lays out a schedule that balances work and prayer, listing specific times that the brothers should pray and do the work of liturgy, and also specific hours they should be at work in the fields. If they have to work even more, Benedict says, “they should not be despondent, because it is when they live by the work of their hands, like our fathers and the apostles, that they are truly monks” (Rule 48, translated by Carolinne White).

This Benedictine emphasis on moderation and balance counteracts any tendency toward specialization. Benedict does recognize, however, that skilled workers, artists and craftsman, can make a unique and valuable contribution. He specifies, though, that their craft must always serve the community. Whenever a monk is tempted to think that his specialized work makes him more valuable or important than the community, he must be removed from his vocation: “If there are any craftsmen in the monastery, let them practise their crafts with complete humility, as long as the abbot gives his permission. But if one of them becomes arrogant because he is skilled at his craft, believing that he is benefiting the monastery, he should be removed from that craft and not allowed to resume it until he has shown humility and the abbot tells him he can” (Rule 57). Other aspects of the Benedictine monastery cultivate this integrated, communal economy: monastics can have no personal property, each is required to serve their turn in the kitchen, they pray and eat together daily, and they take a vow of stability, which requires them to commit themselves to their community. This is the kind of household where the good work that Berry describes, work that “honors God’s work” seems imaginable.

There are at least three attributes about work done in a monastic community that contribute to its healthy character: such work serves a common, locally understood purpose, it is communal, and it is integrated and diverse. I’ll look at each of these in turn. The first, a common, locally understood purpose, can make even tedious work satisfying and fulfilling. Weeding a flowerbed outside of an industrial building, even if you’re getting paid for it, is much less satisfying than weeding a garden whose produce will feed you and your family; the same physical act takes on a different meaning depending on its context.

So, maybe by this point you’re convinced that a monastic community offers a better sphere for good work than does our contemporary economy. But if you’re not going to become a monk, isn’t this a rather pointless, academic argument? How does this actually help us find better ways of working here, where we are?  I’m going to offer a couple of examples that I hope will get your creative juices flowing and help you imagine concrete steps you can take to do more work within a local household. Our goal should be to participate more in amateur economies—ones based on love—rather than professional economies—ones based on exchanging money. So while we may not all become monks, we can all seek to participate in healthy, local economies where good work can be done.

A good place to begin is finding ways to participate in our local food economies. Gardening is an easy way to work toward the health of our households, which is why we started a community garden at Spring Arbor University. Hopefully working in this garden can teach us how to garden well and inspire students to grow their own food after they graduate. The rise of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture makes it much easier to get food from people who live nearby. In addition to shopping at the Jackson farmers’ market, my wife and I buy a dozen eggs each week from a chicken farmer near Concord. Last year we bought a quarter cow from a local farmer and picked peaches and berries at nearby farms. There are many opportunities to buy food directly from those who grow it. Buying food from our neighbors has all kinds of benefits—it gives more money to the farmer, it keeps the farmer responsible to his neighbors for using sustainable practices, and it deepens our personal relationships with our community.

Secondly, we can participate in a DIY culture, doing as much of our own work as we can instead of hiring others to do it for us. Mow your own lawn, shovel snow off of your driveway and sidewalk, change your own oil, do your own home repairs, cook for yourself. Doing this work provides great joy: The satisfactions of cooking a good meal from raw ingredients are immense; I enjoy the process, and my wife and I are the recipients of our good work. It may be more “efficient” to buy processed food or go to a restaurant, but the work of cooking leads to a more healthy, delightful life. Doing the work to sustain our households also contributes to a more healthy culture; when we outsource our work to specialists, we tend to also outsource our entertainment, but when we work alongside our family and neighbors, we are more likely to share meals, games, and conversation with them.

Finally, consider participating in the growing Sharing Economy. Communities are using new information technology to find better ways of sharing resources and working together. This takes various forms, for instance ride sharing via Lyft or Sidecar or room sharing via Airbnb or Couchsurfing. But we can also participating in local sharing economies. I carpool to work almost every day (unless I ride my bike), and last fall several of us started a google document where we listed all the tools we own that we’d be willing to share, essentially forming a tool library. So we might not be willing to go as far as Benedictine monks, who give up all private possessions when they enter a monastery, but when we work together and participate in a sharing economy, we are working against an economy that seeks to commodify everything by putting a monetary price on it. Shared rides, tools, and work won’t dismantle our industrial, specialized economy, but they will make vibrant, healthy households more imaginable.

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Author: Daniela

I was born in Croatia, at that time Yugoslavia. My family moved to the US when I was very young, but I still treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," my grandmother shopping early every morning, at the open air market, to buy the freshest vegetables for the day's meals, and the traditions that were the underpinnings of our society. Someone once noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world; one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

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