Work may seem like a simple word, but each person has a different notion of what is meant by work. To some it refers to a career and/or the effort made to earn money; hence we tend to say, "I am going to work." To many it means the chores performed around the house, such as the vacuuming and laundry, or gardening and repairs. We might say something like: "I had two days off from my job, but I worked at home most of the time." Sometimes people talk about manual work, meaning any job done with the hands, requiring some sort of physical labor. How often do we hear the word work and run in the opposite direction? Work is seen as something to be avoided.
After being a member of Cafh for many years, I have come to have a different idea of work. I define work as "any activity or output of effort which is needed for the unfolding of one or more human beings." Here "unfolding" indicates the development and harmonic integration of mind, body and spirit. Such a broad definition of work, therefore, would include people living in agricultural areas who labor to provide food for others, students doing research on a computer for a statistics class, astrophysicists striving to uncover the frontiers of the universe, and all other efforts by people in different fields and endeavors everywhere.
Seen in this perspective, work is a need and a right. Since work is necessary, it is also valuable. All kinds of work deserve to be respected. A good salesperson, for example, can make a real difference in my day when I have a lot of purchases to make. That certainly seems as valuable to me at the time as the latest astronomical findings on the internet seem to me later. Since work is also a right, everyone deserves to have the means to decent, useful work. This perspective teaches me to value the efforts of workers everywhere whose labors make possible everything in our lives, from the homes we live in, the roads we drive on, the food we put on our tables, as well as the information we have access to on the internet and the medical advances we find in our health care centers.
Work, in whatever capacity, provides us with the milieu in which to learn, thus expanding our awareness and continuously offering new opportunities for development. Sometimes we can choose how we want to work, and we search for work which we think of as meaningful or fulfilling. Other times the circumstances of life limit the work that is open to us, such as in the lives of Christopher Reeves or Stephen Hawkins, whose physical limitations make certain work impossible. Yet we see in the example of strong souls such as these that they still persevere in the work they can do, for they realize that without work, their lives would be meaningless. The challenge I face in the work I do is threefold:
- Discerning what my attitude will be regarding my work
- Finding how I can work well: efficiently, usefully, and productively
- Relating openly and objectively with everyone I come into contact with through my work
Likewise, as I work, I strive to work better. I ask myself, how can I do this job more efficiently? How can I be more productive? What can I learn about myself in this process? Over the years I've come to realize that these questions can be best answered when I am open to the suggestions of others, when I am ready to change.
A good illustration of this took place when I was on a retreat, a regular practice we have in Cafh. The retreat lasted for several days and took place in one of our communities which has a large apple orchard. Part of my work was to tie each new tree to a metal support pole with green tape. After I was shown what seemed to me a simple task, I began my work. There were hundreds of new trees, and I worked two hours a day for several days at this work. As I was working happily along, thinking how well I was doing, one of the community members in charge of the work came and told me I was doing fine, but it would be better not to put the tape so tight, so the tree trunk would have room to expand. Oh, I thought, I didn't know that. I applied his suggestion, and the next day he came along, noticed my improved technique, but gave yet another suggestion to my work. Feeling somewhat chagrined, I of course made the change and continued working. On the third day, as I was proceeding merrily along, he came yet again, and needless to say, he had another suggestion. I felt myself reacting inside, thinking, "Why wasn't I shown all this before?" Then I thought, "Why didn't I ask? Why did I assume I knew everything?" It made me wonder how often I do this kind of "jumping ahead" without realizing how little I really know. Out of this work experience I received a teaching for life: there is always more to learn. Being open helps me expand my way of thinking, acquire new skills and do my work better.
A work experience such as this one, working in an apple orchard for several days, is humbling in many ways. Not only did I learn about myself, but I also realized how much labor goes into everything I use and enjoy in life-the apples on my table now have a new meaning for me. I can see a connection with everything in my life, with workers everywhere in the world. When I eat something today, I wonder where the food was grown, who planted it, how many difficulties did they have to overcome in its production, who harvested it? When I put on a sweater, I think of the people who grew the cotton, developed the machines to clean and spin the fiber, worked with their hands to assemble the final garment. It is a feeling of gratitude and, yes, love. I am part of a great whole, made up of human beings everywhere.
As I reflect on the meaning of work, I realize that work is not so much applying myself to a task and finishing it as it is a process of learning. I learn about myself and expand my attitude to include the relationship I have with all people. I learn how to improve the work I do, applying my efforts to being productive and efficient. I discover the value and necessity of work, and I have a growing respect for all kinds of work and the people who do it. Within this process called work, I think I glimpse what is meant by spiritual union: that invisible bond of interdependence, reverence and love that connects me to all human beings.
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