WORK AND DIGNITY
Give me a chance to survive
I'm just a poor soul in the unemployment line
My god, i'm hardly alive
My mother and father, my wife and my friends
I see them laugh in my face
But i've got the power, and i've got the will
I'm not a charity case
-Styx (Blue Collar Man)
"If you don't like your job, you don't go on strike, you just go in every day and do it really half ass, that's the American way."
Because of this attitude, the approach to work is often one of minimal participation. We do the least we have to in order to get through the day, punching in and out and spending the day looking busy when we have to but not actually being all that productive. As much as possible, we take time off, we call in sick, we sneak in longer breaks. A job for many is viewed as an addition to life, an imposition that takes up most of your waking hours in an unreasonable, even unfair requirement.
It was not always this way, in America and other places. There was a different attitude toward work for most, an approach to work that was given several titles, including the Protestant or Calvinist Work Ethic. This was an attitude toward work that helped build the United States from a vast wilderness with small colonies into a world power, an attitude that developed and perfected thousands of inventions and systems into a technological and industrial powerhouse. It is this attitude that lingered up until the 1970s and has since been all but lost to us.
PROTESTANT WORK ETHIC
After the Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of sloth, corruption, and a loss of classical virtue, there was no force to protect the weak and rely on for justice. There was no system of roads, aqueducts, and mail, the entire infrastructure totally collapsed. Isolated pockets of humanity kept the secrets of what technology was known and learning could be protected and stored away, usually by monks such as in Ireland. In this chaos, there was no law, and the strong preyed on the weak. People banded together in small communities for safety, did not travel far, and relied on a strong, well-trained warrior to protect them. This protector would be paid in goods and services by the common people, and soon achieved power and status as a Lord over a manor.
The Feudal system of government, whether in nations or small isolated pockets of lords and kinglets, was used for over a thousand years to protect people and maintain some semblance of civilization. In this time, many of the innovations and understanding of science, farming, technology, and literature were lost. People were too busy trying to survive plague, raids by barbarians, wars, famine, and harsh winters to study and learn. The lords were busy fighting and learning to be mighty warriors to study much. Only the clergy had time for study, and their studies focused more on religious matters than worldly. The monastaries had great scholars and learned men - who stayed in the boundaries of the monastary and kept their wisdom and understanding to themselves.
In this system, the attitude toward labor was that it was for the peasant and the serf, for those who served rather than for those who ruled. A lord should never have to do manual labor, that was beneath their status. They had loftier things to worry about and take up their time. The Roman Catholic Church taught that the world was strictly divided between the sacred and the secular, that there was holy work, God's work, and then there was the work one did in the world. This approach lead to the belief that doing God's work was higher, better, and more noble as well.
For a peasant, moving from being little more than a slave to being a lord was not only unimaginable, it was all but impossible. Lords and kings had education, training, and riches a peasant had no time or chance to achieve. Even by going to war the peasant was typically just a footsoldier, used to slow the enemies masses while the knights won the honor and victory. There were exceptions to this, in England the longbowman could achieve some status and wealth through the use of a weapon that took many years to learn properly and physical training and development that lords did not have time or interest in achieving. For most, however, the life was static and unchangeable.
The only hope of the majority of people for some sort of step up from a peasant was to become a monk or priest. In joining the church and becoming clergy, even the lowest peasant could be accepted in the presence of kings and emperors, with respect. It was the high calling of working for God that was viewed as being great, not the person's efforts or character. A calling was understood to be exclusively for sacred work, one was called by God in a spiritual way to this work rather than another.
The Roman Catholic Church taught the concept of vocation, in which one had a special calling by God to work in the church, to do God's work rather than man's. This concept was exclusively reserved for the church and doing "sacred" work rather than labor. It is true that in this monks would do much manual labor, especially orders like the Benedictine and Franciscan, who viewed simple hard work as humbling. Monastaries were self-supporting institutions, they required no outside assistance because in general even raiders tended to view them with religious awe and these places had their own fields, flocks, and even mines. This work was viewed as secular work, which allowed the monastary to stay isolated from the world and give them the opportunity to engage in sacred work of study, praise, prayer, and song.
In the late 1500's a monk named Martin Luther, whose story is fascinating in its own right, began to study old writings of men like Augustine and the Bible, particularly Paul's epistle to the Romans. He moved away from much of orthodox Roman Catholic doctrine, calling the church to reformation, to returning to what was once taught in the Christian church, and to a better understanding of doctrine. Among the many things that Luther called for was a shift in the attitude toward work and the sacred.
For Martin Luther and the many reformers after him (and some before him, who were less successful in their efforts), the hard divide between the sacred and the secular was flawed. They saw the entire world as God's and all work as being work to and for God's glory. Whether one was a priest or a ploughman, he still had to work for God's glory and do the best he can out of reverence and gratitude for God's love and grace. Martin Luther was once asked by a recent convert what he should do with his life, for he was just a simple cobbler and he wanted to serve God. Martin Luther replied "Make a good shoe and sell it at an honest price."
For the reformers, all work was a calling, a vocation. All work, as long as it was not openly sinful and contrary to God's law (prostitute, hit man, thief, swindler, etc) was noble, proper, and good. All work no matter how mean and simple it was had a sacred side to it in that it was done for God and in God's plan. You were at this job because God sovereignly chose it for you, and may choose another line of work or life for you in the future. You were to work as best you could, no matter what the job, and do so joyfully and for God's glory in whatever the setting was.
This attitude about work was a significant shift from what was previously held by the western world and is in stark contrast to most of the world, everywhere and for almost all times. Work was not mere painful drudgery, but a sacrifice of gratitude toward the loving Father whose very Son provided so costly a salvation. All work was ennobled, all labor had deeper meaning and more significance.
Often a mistaken thought by some in the Christian church and by many outside it that Christians work so that they can get goodies later on, that right living and holy life is in hope of reward or fear of damnation. This is not what scripture teaches and it is not what the reformers taught either. Without getting too deeply into theology, rewards are like a father who praises a son for helping him fix the car when all the son did was hand him tools and push the gas petal once in a while. It's a gift as well, for the sake of what someone else did out of love. For the Christian, rewards are something looked to when the labors of this life are finally done, a compensation for the pains and sacrifice faced here on earth, but not the reason for the work and the sacrifice. The driving force behind true, Biblical Christian piety is gratitude for salvation and for the grace of God, not hope for reward or terror of punishment.
The Bible teaches that labor and work is in its self proper and good, that one should work for their living, be paid properly for this, and produce for one's family and people. Work is not in this worldview an imposition upon one's efforts to be comfortable, happy, and have fun. It is the major part of life that is a goal that all should engage themselves in. Work is not drudgery or painful in this ideology, it is something good and proper.
The protestant work ethic then is to do the best job one can at all times and in whatever job one happens to be in, with a joyful heart and a grateful spirit, not for reward but for God.
For most of the world, the ideal of working for God was a fine thought, and to the best of one's ability, people would do so. The system and culture they lived in, however, was very limiting on how successful and significant such an effort would be. In England, for example, the protestants who rejected the Church of England followed this work ethic, and embraced concepts like the Dutch system of banking and loans, and through this began to prosper greatly in their labors.
In response, the ruling Church of England and king restricted the ownings, schooling, and factories of these puritans and non-conformists (not conforming to the Anglican church). They could own no property close to cities, they could have no laborers over a certain number, and so on. So these men and women began to innovate. Some of the first factory machines were invented by these non-conformists, so that they could produce their goods without as many workers. A system of canals were dug in England from these distant factories and farms to the towns, because the road systems were not well maintained, especially in winter. Even though slow, the canals were faster than by land, and through this, the puritans and thier fellow protestants began to prosper even more. In response, the government and church pressed upon them harder outlawing worship services and even killing them in some places.
When the new world was discovered, these puritans saw an opportunity. The Church of England was not able to enforce their will over thousands of miles of oceans. The land was wide open and new, anyone could own land, anyone could hunt. There were no restrictions on how close you could live or work to the docks, there were no bans on worship. So to North America they went, and founded many colonies. This puritan attitude toward work and economics took root deeply in the colonies, and for centuries after was dominant and powerful.
Eric Sloane writes books about the pioneer spirit, how things were done two hundred years ago, and the significance of the attitude in the past compared to today. He wrote in Once Upon a Time, The Way America Was about the American heritage, the difference between the past and today and what has been lost.
A simple American farmer could own his land and have voice in the laws of the government. His regard for this newfound independence, his devotion to God, his reverence for home and love of hard work made him quite a fellow that the rest of the world looked up to. Everyone in America could be equal to kings and queens abroad; and this, in short, is the heritage we often take for granted and manage sometimes to forget.One of the tragedies of success is that further generations may not appreciate the effort and sacrifice it took to achieve. We live in a culture of comfort, ease, and wealth in the United States that no previous nation or people have ever achieved at any social scale. The richest, most powerful kings in ancient times would boggle at the life even lower middle class people enjoy in America. That life, that level of comfort did not happen overnight and did not occur because of indolence. It was more than a century of hard work and sacrifice that got us where we are today, and as Mr Sloane points out, our lack of that labor and effort make us numb to its significance and feel an emptiness in our lives.
It becomes easy to forget in our everyday existence when so many things are done for us: life becomes dull because we are robbed of the pleasure of doing things for ourselves. The government is doing more for us now than we realize, even more than a self-reliant person might wish. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves. Less self-reliant now, we feel less important than we used to. Back in pioneer days we were completely aware of our self dependence because everything we ate and drank, everything we wore, almost everything we touched were results of our own labor. We had reason to believe we were pretty important in those days.
What a bore life has become! When we turn on a water faucet we have no idea where the water comes from. When we want light, we simply flick on a switch without knowing where the power came from. Our clothes might come from Chicago or Hong Kong but we couldn't care less: our food comes from somewhere by truck or train-what's the difference? The actual difference is that if you had dug your own well, you would savor that water like fine wine. If you made your own candles for light, you'd enjoy the fruits of your labor, prizing those candles, actually enjoying the light they gave. If your father raised the sheep and your mother spun the wool to make yoursocks and your suit, you'd be pretty proud of them and never think of discarding them even when worn out. A house and furniture made of trees you felled yourself would become museum pieces to you. Your whole life would be full of the evidences of your own value, therefore your life would be richer and more meaningful, Such was the awareness and spiritual richness of early days that does not exist today.
More than any previous generation, Americans today are able to take more time off and enjoy more luxuries for less work. A full 8-hour day is perceived as an imposition, an unreasonable cruelty. The work day of a pioneer began when he awoke and ended when he went to bed. When they were not working at primary labor such as farming, ranching, logging, or what have you, the pioneer was laboring at the basic necessities of life. Once the well was dug, a back-breaking effort, one had to go out in all manner of weather and draw water to drink, wash, bathe, and work with. Once a home was built by hand using local materials and strength, the house had to be maintained, the roof kept up and mended, the windows cleaned, the floor swept, if a floor was even built in the house rather than dirt.
If you wanted clothes you had to make them, if you wanted rugs, you often made them from rags of clothes that finally wore out so much they couldn't be mended. If you wanted candles, you had to dip your own wax and tallow, make your own light source. If you wanted toast, you had to grind flour, make bread, chopping wood for the stove, and cook it by hand. For entertainment you made toys for your family, whittling a whistle, making a top, using some wood to make a toy pony. Those curtains on the wall, mom would make in the long winter months while the ground outside rested. The food you ate came from gardening, hunting, and fishing.
No day was without labor, even when one was sick, if you didn't work, you didn't eat, have heat, or have medicine. This was not due to any sadistic cruelty or slave driver, the work was simply what had to be done.
In this kind of lifestyle, each possession took on greater meaning, as Sloane illustrates. Your clothing was a dear possession, not something cast aside for the latest fashion or when slightly faded or worn. Because these clothes were so important, they were mended carefully so that one could always be presentable. It is almost universally true that people care more for and are more proud of what they've contributed to and worked on than what they are given or achieve with little effort. The efforts of groups like Habitat for Humanity are careful to have the people whose home they are building help out because when your hands formed the walls and hammered the nails, you're much more careful and protective of the home.
I'm taking what they giving 'cause I'm working for a livin'."
-Huey Louis and the News (Workin' for a living)
Without this as part of culture, people do tend to care less about their possessions, homes, and even environment. When you had to rely on the local ecosystem for food and shelter, you were significantly more careful with it - while being willing to use it for what you needed. The modern attitude is all too often either disregard for the natural world around us, or an overstated sense of religious awe, as if it is a sacred temple that ought never be trampled or used. Both of these attitudes demonstrate a disconnect with the world and how it impacts us. And this is a result of the disconnect between labor and product, effort and comfort.
When you think meat comes in Styrofoam packets wrapped in plastic in the supermarket, a slaughterhouse becomes a place of stunning horror. When you hunt for food to survive, the attitude is significantly different. Not only do you care more for the animals in question, but you understand how and where it is you get that tasty burger.
When you are paid dollars rather than see direct results of your labors, it is easier to view your efforts in terms of luxury than necessity. If you have to build your house using a saw to cut trees down and months of strenuous effort, the connection between work and result is obvious. When you work at a factory stamping widgets 8 hours a day (with breaks, lunch, sick leave, personal time, and holidays), you see no result of your labor other than yet another identical widget to stamp. The pay you get is for your time, and what you buy with it is not related to your efforts except in the most tenuous way.
Studs Terkel wrote the book Working by interviewing people from all walks of life about their jobs and what it meant. He interviewed prostitutes and politicians (ok so the difference is subtle), lawyers and steelworkers, farmers and factory laborers. In these interviews, one can see the difference between someone whose work produces real and tangible results and someone who does not. For the steelworker who puts up a building, he sees what he's done every time he passes that building by. For the factory worker who pulls a lever 18 times a minute, he does not, and the attitude is stark. The factory worker feels no meaning in his work and worse his life. For him, labor is all too often a hollow shell where each day is the same and despite his natural inclination and desires (for almost all men), he accomplishes nothing, builds nothing, achieves nothing. He goes home, feeling that nothing, and awakes looking forward to it again.
It is this emptiness in lives that we feel deeply today. We are faced with a spiritual void as well, but that is matter for another essay. It is in our physical lives that this emptiness takes hold. It is the kind of loss that the rich girl whose great-grandfather inherited all the wealth. The money means nothing and she's not required to do anything at all, ever. She tries to fill her life with fun and parties, which at best provide only momentary distraction from the emptiness and sense of being worth little or nothing.
In America, almost all of us are that girl. We've inherited a powerful, rich and prosperous nation that extends to us security, comfort, and pleasure with little to no effort on our parts. We glide on the momentum of generations before us, without their attitude and desires. The Protestant Work Ethic is nearly dead in America, because this disconnect has become so profound and extensive.
If you want your life to have more meaning and to be more significant, many have found out what to do. For some it is volunteering somewhere. For others, it is attaching to a cause such as anti-war or pro-gun. For still others, it is taking up gardening or hobbies around the house. In each example, the person is doing work for the mere virtue of work and reaping the rewards not of pay but meaning and significance in that work. Almost everyone is familiar with the pattern of feeling low, then coming out of this depression by helping someone else. It is taking their burdens and helping them that makes us care less about our sorrows and face them better. Why? Because instead of the inertia of self pity and misery, we're doing something and facing life by activity outside ourselves and our comfort.
We are, as human beings, created not for indolence and comfort, but work and labor. We are meant to do things, rather than enjoy things. Pleasures and enjoyment are good and right, but ought not be the central focus and goal of our lives. I wake up every morning, for now at least, looking at what I'll do on my blog. The morning is taken up with that and a daily chat with my widowed mother on the phone. It is this daily pattern of effort and result - even as little result as I see - that gives my life a fuller meaning than without it. Even someone as weak and of poor health as myself can find a way to make this matter and happen.
The mistake some make is to make this labor the goal rather than the goodness of it. Filling your day with constant activity and work simply to stay busy and work is just as bad as filling it with comfort in this sense - the disconnect is still there. You are now working to be busy rather than working because it is the right thing to do and for the joy of doing good. This is no better for that emptiness than failure to work at all.
Our lives require work, and this effort requires a greater goal than getting through the work day and getting paid. We have to reclaim the Protestant Work Ethic for our nation, our culture, and ourselves so that work becomes more than it is today. The quality of labor in this nation has suffered greatly in recent decades, as has the product we see. A people can only get so far on the momentum of its previous generations before it grinds to a halt.
There are bright spots and places where people work hard and with joy. There are people who still cling to this idea and make their lives mean more. And I know that for Joe Factoryworker it is hard to have that sort of attitude, each day is a crushing grind that tries to smear away your soul in it's monotony and lack of meaning. Perhaps another job is right, or perhaps the job can be approached differently. Perhaps when you get home, finding something to do that matters can help. In whatever you do, as a people, we have a responsibility to make more of our lives than hours spent each day so that we can buy another DVD or game console or party dress.
America should not be a nation of Paris Hilitons, famous and popular merely for being worthless and hedonistic. This nation was not built on comfort and sloth, it was built on a joy of labor well done and results worth working for. We'll lose it all if we do not recover that ethic.