One episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a hilarious subplot featuring hipsters Bob and Sue Thompsteen (they combined their last names). When landlady Lillian asks them, “What do you do for work?” they look puzzled. Bob replies, “Uhhh…” Lillian corrects herself: “Oh, I’m sorry. I mean: can you believe that you get paid to follow your bliss?” They look excited and Bob replies enthusiastically, “Right?”
American achievement ideology (which is, in a nutshell, “Believe in yourself, try hard, and you can do/be anything you want”) has crept into the philosophy and rhetoric of work. What that means is that the expectations we have for our jobs are sky-high. Generally, people used to expect their job to pay the bills, feed themselves and their families, and at the end of the day, provide a modicum of satisfaction for tasks completed.
No longer. Jobs are supposed to provide you with Ultimate Fulfillment of Life Dreams. If you’re not leaping out of bed Monday morning and skipping to the office, you’re in the wrong career. Work is supposed to be enlightening, empowering, fulfilling, and it’s definitely not supposed to feel like work. If your job is too challenging or not quite challenging enough, then start sending out resumes. Of course, I’m using slight hyperbole, but most of us can probably recognize aspects of this mentality in ourselves.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I really am getting paid to “follow my bliss.” I have an unprecedented ability, at the moment, to go down any avenue of research in two fields. I’ve been given the financial and physical resources–huge library, free time, stipend, health care, multiple offices/study spaces, tuition waiver, graduate housing, mentors, colleagues–to pursue any research questions that strike me as 1) worth asking, 2) interesting, and 3) relevant to the field. That means I’m completely content in my work, happily burrowing through library books and merrily skittering over my laptop keys, right?
Um, no. Not how human nature works. And actually, not how “work” works either. Because no matter how much we love what we do, it can’t save us. The problem with work is the impermanence of all things. If you wash dirty dishes at home, it will benefit you and your family temporarily, but soon the same dishes will need washing again. All trace of your hard work in a soapy sink will be erased. If you write a great book that solves a significant global problem, your work will last longer and benefit more people than dishwashing. But it will follow the same path as the dishes: it will at some point be forgotten, and the people it helped will some day all disappear without a trace.
The big picture of work is fundamentally depressing. Ecclesiastes 2 gives us the brutal truth, straight-no-chaser: “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” All of it. Meaningless. Because no matter what you do, no matter who you help, no matter what you accomplish, one day you die and the people you helped or educated or influenced will die and even if you write something down for posterity, as Julian Barnes says, there will be a Last Person Who Reads The Things You Write. (Hi, last person! Hope you’re doing well. Thanks for being my last reader.) And your work will be passed along to someone else who probably won’t understand it, will misinterpret it, and will do something weird with it. Like maybe start a cult or something.
This is incredibly depressing. It is not, however, the final word. The reason God told us about the ultimate meaninglessness of work is that we’re drowning in an ocean and we’re constantly trying to turn work into a life preserver. Work can’t ultimately fulfill us, can’t love us back, can’t redeem us, can’t forgive us, and it definitely can’t save us. Adam and Eve were supposed to work and obey God and pass the test and then through their work they would win eternal bliss. They failed, which means that now none of us is able to earn divine favor. But here’s the thing: we are wired just like they were. Deep down, we still believe that our work can win us immortal life. “You will remember me for centuries,” croons the band Fall Out Boy. Yeah, maybe (not likely). But then what?
But we must not ask work to do something for us that it’s not designed to do. Work is work. Bad things happen when we try to make it into Ultimate Dream Fulfillment.
The reason God pointed out the ultimate meaninglessness of our toils is that he doesn’t want us holding on to life preserver that won’t preserve our lives. We work as though we’ll win immortality. We won’t, God says. He won it for us. Because what we couldn’t do, Jesus did–in abundance. His righteousness becomes ours, and His death paid our debt.
And now, we rest in the finished work of Christ. And then, incredibly, miraculously, that’s what motivates us to do our work. That’s what gives our work meaning. We work FROM our rest, not in order to win our rest. We can push through the aching boredom, the frustration, the anxiety, the pain, the fears of inadequacy, the angst, the conflict, the competition, because of the confidence we have in the work that ended with the words, “It is finished.”
It starts with Sunday. The Word of God, preached. The bread and the wine. Worship. Do this in remembrance of Me. The rest of the week follows. We rest–and then we work.
Work is depressing, and that’s a good thing. Because it means, as Augustine said, that our hearts stay good and restless until they find rest in God.