Friday, April 22, 2011

Meaningful Work

In my role as a professor I have the opportunity to counsel many young people as they face the endless options before them. What should I major in? What kind of career should I work toward? Should I do what I love or make a living? I’m not there to tell them what to do or who to be. In my counseling work I don’t try to change people. I help them tell the truth to themselves about themselves. The healing comes from that.

When students agonize about their majors, their college choices, their careers – in other words, their futures – what they are really agonizing about is a far more fundamental question, the most important question of all: who am I or even more to the point what am I? No other question so effectively clears out the accumulated debris of years of fear and misunderstanding leaving us clarified and ready to act in accord with our essential nature.

Although he is terribly out of fashion and much maligned, the philosopher Karl Marx made a powerful point when he suggested that instead of homo sapien, our species would be more aptly named homo faber. Homo sapien means “man the thinker”. Homo faber means “man the maker”. For Marx, the single most defining characteristic of our species is not our ability to think but our ability to shape the world around us. Yes, birds make nests and bees make hives, but human beings reach into the ground extracting iron, oil and other elemental substances and then with our opposable thumbs and creative visions we turn the earth’s elements into space shuttles, heart valves and iPads. Like gods we pick up clay and breathe our essence into it. In the alchemy of transformation, work is our talisman.

It is in our nature to work, to create, to combine, to innovate, to synthesize and to build. The things we make, whether they are songs or skyscrapers, are externalizations of our essence. And as we shape the world after our own visions, the world in turn shapes us. It is hard to know where our consciousness ends and the world begins. When we invent the world we are inventing ourselves. And work is the sacramental act that binds it all together.

A former student recently wrote to me through Facebook and relayed a struggle he was having. His heart and his gut were telling him to major in religious studies but he knew that with only a BA he wouldn’t be able to teach or in any other way earn a living with that degree. Grad school in the foreseeable future was out of the question and without a Masters degree his fear was that he would have to settle for some menial job outside his genuine interests – something just to pay the bills. As he framed it, the dilemma was between making money and meaningful work. He asked me what to do.

When a philosophical dilemma arises the problem is often rooted in the way we frame the issue. In other words, to make any headway on this dilemma we must first step back and examine the words we are using. What are our underlying, unexamined assumptions? What does “meaningful work” really mean?

What we have are two conflicting truths. On one hand is the notion that each of us must realize our passion by finding work that is deeply and personally meaningful for us. By finding a career that aligns with our deepest purpose we realize joy. From this perspective, the greatest blunder is selling-out for the almighty dollar and letting our sacred purpose wither.

On the other hand is the equally compelling notion that any work, so long as it does not profit from the suffering of others, can be profoundly fulfilling if the attitude of the worker is deeply committed to the consciousness of service. In this truth the so-called dilemma between making money and meaningful work dissolves. Any work can be meaningful work because meaning is found in the consciousness of the worker, not in external conditions or circumstances. It is this second possibility that often gets short shrift from both career counselors and spiritual advisors. The idea that any work can be meaningful is just not as sexy as following your bliss.

But not everyone gets to be an astronaut or a rock star. Very few earn a living at poetry or painting. Mystics and monks may get manna from heaven, but money? Not so much. And last time I checked, mothers don’t earn a dime. Clearly there must be a way to shift our consciousness into realizing that the sacred nature of work is only incidentally related to income stream. If your dream job has not yet materialized and you find yourself having to take whatever kind of employment comes your way to put food on the table and a roof over your head, consider this. There is great honor and dignity in being a part of something bigger than you, even if that something is an assembly line, a muffler shop, an office suite or a corner cafĂ©. Some of the most deeply fulfilled people I’ve ever met are humble people with simple jobs – taxi drivers, janitors, warehouse workers, shipping clerks, gardeners.

When you surrender yourself to the choreography of your work, you slip into the now moment where you encounter other human beings, beings of infinite value, and you have the momentous opportunity to bring your training, skill and compassion to bear on their suffering and unmet needs. Making sandwiches, filing paperwork and cleaning rooms may seem like humble work, but it is no less essential than rocket science – without either one the world would be immeasurably poorer. No matter the nature of your work, realize that you are playing an essential role in bringing order out of chaos. As you trim hedges and stock groceries and wipe tables and deliver packages you are participating in the healing of the world. You are mending hearts. You are creating beauty. You are bringing people out of darkness. You are feeding them body, mind and soul. With every kindness you are restoring the faith of the people you serve. Your work is the connective tissue of the body of humanity. To recast an old theater adage, there are no small jobs, only small workers.

Whether we are called teachers or not, all of us teach. The way we treat other people teaches them who they are and who we are. Every encounter, no matter how mundane, is a holy meeting.

So while it is true that we must follow our bliss it is also true that we must guard against the tendency of the ego to hijack our hearts and twist our minds into thinking that we are too good for menial labor. When the Zen student complained to the master that after three weeks at the monastery he had still not learned a single thing about Zen the master asked, “Have you eaten?”

“Yes,” said the student.

“Then wash your bowl.”

All work is service. And service is the work of heaven. Who would think themselves too good to perform the work of heaven?

It is right in the midst of these everyday chores that we realize wisdom. Sweep the path. Wash the sheets. Lift up those around you who have fallen. Let go your empty dreams of fame and glory. They were only the projections of your fears and self-aggrandizement. Instead, embrace your role as a part of the whole, not beneath anyone else or better than anyone else. This is our meaningful work.


Lisa said...

I wanted to ask you a question about illness and suffering and how to deal with it. Is there a place via your blog where I can ask a question and get your thoughts? I have appreciated reading through your blog and am wrestling with a particular issue about suffering.

© Peter Bolland said...


I guess there isn't really a way to correspond here on this blog site. Message me on Facebook...


Lisa said...


I don't have a Facebook account so I figured I would post my question to you here and then you can respond via your blog with your thoughts.

I have enjoyed reading your blog recently and really resonate with many of the things you have to say. This is why I wanted to pose a question to you about suffering. I appreciate the philosophical background and big picture thinking you bring to your writing. So I would really value your input about my questions.

My question is about suffering and how to deal with it. I often find myself angry and frustrated at the suffering I witness and observe others going through, and sometimes experience myself. In particular, I grew up with a mom who had a debilitating form of Multiple Sclerosis. Diagnosed at 30, her physical capabilities diminished progressively over the years. In 2005, on top of dealing with her MS, which had put her in a wheelchair by 45, taken her speech, ability to write, to read, to paint, to garden, etc., she developed uterine cancer. Just a month ago my mom passed away at 62 from cancer. These last few years she really did suffer physically and emotionally, on top of the previous years of physical and emotional frustration. Fairness is not a word I would use to describe her life or life in general. Life is simply unfair and my mom had more than her fair share of suffering.

My question is about how to deal with the reality of suffering in life and how to come to peace with the unfairness of it all. Some suffer far more than others. It seems too flippant to just say to accept that life is suffering and move on, let go. I know Buddhism talks about accepting that life is suffering in order to move on, but I feel this is too simplified a way of really dealing with how challenging suffering is to experience, to go through, or observe. My mom really got a raw deal in this life. She is not alone though, there are so many people who experience raw deals in this life and who suffer in countless ways.

How does one deal with the frustration, the sense of wanting life to be fair, for people not to suffer, for people to be fair and just with each other?

This question about suffering has been a real hang-up for me for a long-time in my spiritual journey in life. Any insights or wisdom you can impart would be appreciated.