On Working

Yesterday was Fathers’ Day and so, like many, I reflected on my own Dad. I learned many great things from him including the importance of family, the values of loyalty and generosity, and how to swear like a real pro!

My Dad was a traditional male and so defined his role as that of a provider. As such, much of who he was he defined by his work such that he took great pride in the fact that he was still working at age 79.

I also recently re-watched a dramatization based on Studs Terkel’s great book Working. The book and play are replete with moving reflections of regular folks on the role work plays in their lives. One of my favorites is a steel worker who points to a picture of his son and says: “This is why I work….I want my son to read Walt Whitman and be proud of it. ..Because if you can’t improve yourself, you improve your posterity. Otherwise life ain’t worth livin’. Might as well go back to the caves…You know, I don’t think the first caveman went over the hill to see what’s on the other side. He went there so he could get his son out of the cave.”

My work has to do with helping others. But I am also very clear that it is first and foremost how I take care of my family, providing them not only with essentials but with opportunities. If I lose sight of that reality, my family suffers. By and large, though, I don’t struggle much with that demon of many jobs — boredom.

I haven’t always been a psychologist though. Early on, I worked as a mailman peddling mail during the day and sorting it at night. The day part I loved. I was outdoors and exercising. The mail-sorting was a different story. The monotony of placing envelopes in various slots would only be broken up with the arrival of magazines. Sports Illustrated was very popular but the big evening was when the monthly Playboy arrived!

I had other jobs before entering the Army as a psychologist. I spent one summer in a plastics factory, another in a paint factory. I worked one summer checking IDs in a bar and two Christmases in a men’s clothing store. Boredom was a constant companion in all those places and I came to deeply admire the men and women for whom those jobs were a daily challenge. I remember women sorting through boxes upon boxes of small plastic parts, weeding out defects. I remember men who worked plastic presses. Most were missing a finger or two. I remember the guidance of mailmen on dealing with dogs and upset customers. I remember a barmaid after the bar closed. She’d go around with a flashlight, looking in all the booths for change that got dropped on the floor.

For many of us, who we are is defined very much by our jobs. Some people define themselves by a set of ideals that define their jobs. Others are drawn to power and prestige, viewing a job as a pathway. Most of us would like to find meaning in our jobs but are hard-pressed to do so. All of us struggle with self-worth in the absence of work. Few have the time or energy to even begin to worry about whether or not their work is a part of God’s will!

Let me close by sharing with you a passage from the dramatization of Working. Actress Eileen Brennan beautifully portrays a millworker

Reflection: What role has work played in your spiritual journey?