You Don’t Know What Work Is

John Churchill has a contrarian take on work:

Is there no intrinsic value ─ no good in itself ─ in the work of a life that does not rise, in its own span, above the level of the mop and the apron?

This is where I balk. Call me a Calvinist. I believe in the redemptive power of work. I believe that well-directed work, work well done, has about it an intrinsic dignity and intrinsic nobility, that stands no matter what happens further in the life of the worker, or his or her progeny. We are, I think, so chastened by the truths in Marx’s concept of the alienation of labor, and so rightly horrified by the exploitation of labor in our own national history ─ enslaved and wage-earning ─ that we are apt to think of the condition of work itself as an evil to be overcome.

But ─ barring a complete inversion of the human condition ─ that is not going to happen. Adam and Eve worked in Eden. If Genesis is vague on this point, Milton could not be clearer. Admittedly, as the story goes, in Eden the conditions were better than afterward. But work is our lot, and without it we are not human. If work is not of intrinsic dignity, then neither is any of us.

I agree with Churchill that there’s no escaping entropy: it’s something life has to push back against lest it cease to be life. But I also think he goes off the rails a bit, emphasizing his position a bit too strongly. Contra Camus, we needn’t imagine Sisyphus happy. The dignity in work is only dignity if it is directed to some higher aspiration than mere order, comfort qua comfort, or even excellence. There may be little dignity in working just to work, just to keep busy. These may be signs that you’re avoiding some harder work or truth. A good deal of the work that goes on in this world is in the service of procrastination. (Blind habit can also be procrastination.)

Sometimes it takes a great deal of work not to work, not to be busy, not to compulsively move about, and to sit before the terror of your existential situation without pushing it away. Thoreau once accused busy men of living lives of “quiet desperation,” and the poet Alan Ginsberg used to say, “It’s never too late to do nothing at all.”

For Oedipus and Orwell, the hardest work is facing the truth. For Philip Levine, it’s love. I think one of the hardest things in the world is to be patient enough not to move on; to stay until you see. Sometimes it takes all you’ve got not to pluck out your eyes.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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