At this time of year when many of us must ‘go back to work’ after a break, we can wonder about the place of work in our life.

It makes me think of when I first read Wendell Berry and E.F. Schumacher commenting that our work has become a chore to be avoided. I felt immediately convicted—isn’t work something we do simply because we must, and so shouldn’t we expect it to be onerous?

Berry’s words were like a thunderclap: “Where is our pleasure but in working and resting kindly in the presence of this world?” He uses farming as an example and reflects, “What have farmers done when they have mechanized and computerized their farms? They have removed themselves and their pleasures from their work.”

Perhaps I could find an alternative view in Josef Pieper on leisure, a kind of justification for writing off work as onerous. But rather, I find corroboration. Work and leisure, Pieper says, are two sides of the same coin—as likewise suggested by Schumacher and many others. Finally, it begins to dawn on me.

If I am unable to find pleasure in work, I will be unable to find pleasure in leisure.

We have been slowly but powerfully massaged into a distorted view of work, one that fits hand in glove with a distorted view of life and its real pleasures. Sure enough, to the extent that human happiness is identified with any of the many shallow counterfeits—from economic success, to honor and glory, to comfort or bodily pleasure—to that extent real work will become nothing but a means to be endured and gotten beyond.

The ads on the internet proclaiming that you too can make a lot of money by doing almost nothing are a particularly potent sign of our disease. But we feel ourselves pulled by this temptation. Of course so much of today’s ‘investing’ has primed us well for this: the promise of profit without the burden of responsibility and work glitters like gold.

A key aspect of our problem is that so much ‘work,’ so many professions have been reduced, if not to the mindless repetition of factory-like work, then in any case to activities that fail to engage and fulfill our powers and natural inclinations. They fail to bring us into meaningful relationships with other people, the natural world, and our own bodies.

Seeing this, what are we to do? Two things remain directly in our power even in this very challenging context.

First, no matter what our work is—be it ever so objectively oppressive, mind-numbing, or unfulfilling—we can find joy in it simply by choosing to do so. Here, the proverbial attitude-change can in fact be life-changing. Yes, perhaps this work and my general life situation is far from ideal. But if this is given to me as what I must do, I embrace it. I choose to humanize it by doing it well. Quality and integrity will be the hallmarks of my work.

Easily said; difficult to do. But at least we can make this our intention. I can in a very real sense make any work a profoundly human endeavor, in the service of others. What a power this is!

Second, especially if my ‘primary’ work is less fulfilling, I can make space in my life for some kind of richer work—ideally one I can do together with loved ones. Here is one of the key, concrete means to the renewal of marriage and homelife, and to deepening relationships with those I love most. This step is of course in addition to the first step above. [Note, for this reflection, I set aside the issue of changing profession, something perhaps worth considering, and I focus on what is immediately possible for all of us.]

We can start with one of the home arts. The arts of food production, preparation, and preservation are perennially fitting; there is nothing like gardening (which, by the way, can be year-round, even if just in its planning!). The arts of making something beautiful by hand are likewise perfect: sewing, needlepoint, etc.; wood, stone, or metal work; the countless manifestations of husbandry and wifery in the home.

In these as in whatever other work we do, we can expect and so cultivate something deeper, discovering work to be what it can and should be: a gift at the center of human life. Though certainly not always ‘easy’—indeed often the more demanding works are the more fulfilling–work can ever be an expression of what is most human, an irreplaceable form of shared-living, and so also a real pleasure. Here is a pleasure we can all strive to rediscover, perhaps especially in this new year. ~ ~ ~

Dear Readers!
Thanks to you, our year-end Beginning at Home campaign to raise $100,000 was a huge success! Not only did we meet our goal, but we exceeded it! We are excited to work together in this new year to hone the craft of living, and to expand our resources and bring them to many more people. Sofia and I are so grateful to be with you in this!

And here is one of our more popular VIDEOS on relating leisure, work, and amusement:

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