Must my job be the primary source
of my identity? To whom and to
what should I listen as I decide what
to do for a living? With whom and
for whom shall I live? Is a balanced
life possible and preferable to a life
focused primarily on work? What
are my obligations to future human
and other life? How shall I tell the
story of my life?
What question do college students most dread? Perhaps the one they get asked most often: “So, what are you going to do after you graduate?” Relatives have an irksome way of raising this question repeatedly. And adults of all ages are frequently subject to similar, abrupt interrogations about what they do to earn a living. Indeed, social observers have long noticed that in the United States people typically open a conversation with strangers by asking them what they do, a question that seems especially discomfiting to the unemployed or those working at a job they do not especially enjoy or respect.
These everyday queries are worth pondering, since they are not common everywhere. People in other countries find it offensive to be asked straightaway what they do to earn a living, rather like how we might feel if people began a conversation by asking us how much money we make. And even in this country, some people invite others to identify themselves by asking different questions. What tribe are you from? Tell me about your family, about your place of birth, or about how you came to be where you are now. In other words, there are many other ways in which people here and elsewhere begin to become acquainted with one another.
Why do questions about our jobs sometimes agitate us? Are we made uncomfortable by them only because we are unsure how to answer or unhappy with the answer we must give? We would probably not be embarrassed or irked by questions about where we plan to settle down or what kind of car we plan to buy, even if we didn’t know the answers. Questions about what we do, however, can make us uncomfortable because we really do believe, even without realizing it, that our answers to them reveal something vitally important about who we are. Some people may not mind being asked—in fact, they may be quite eager to respond because they are proud of what they do and proud of what they believe that indicates about their overall character and standing in the world. But one way or another, for better or for worse, our sense of who we are and our sense of what we do for a living are deeply bound up with one another.
However, human beings have not always thought of their work as the most important thing about them. Such an exalted view of work is itself the result of complex social and economic changes that have been most pronounced in Western, capitalist countries over the last three or four hundred years. In earlier periods, and still today in much of the world, people regarded paid employment as necessary to gain sustenance and leisure, but not as a primary source of fulfillment and identity. And for the majority of people around the globe, making a living has involved and still does involve work that is onerous and sometimes dangerous. These historical and social realities have been ignored by many modern Americans in their thinking about what work to do.
The first two selections in this chapter explain why paid employment has become, for millions of US citizens, so vitally, even centrally, important to their sense of who they are, while the reading that follows these objects to seeing work as what defines people’s identity.
- a selection from a book on work and democracy (Russell Muirhead)
- an essay arguing that we live in order to work (Dorothy Sayers)
- a selection from an ethicist’s book on friendship (Gilbert Meilaender)
The readings by Russell Muirhead and Dorothy Sayers help us to think about the importance of the right kind of paid work in constituting a healthy society, personal well-being, and faithful Christian living. From the earliest years of American history, political life was closely tied to economic life; the right to vote, for example, was for a long time restricted to adult male property owners. This limitation of the franchise was based upon the seemingly unshakeable conviction that, to make wise political decisions, one had to be economically independent, not overly beholden to others for economic security. Holding property not only gave a man a stake in society; it also gave him a measure of freedom from the demands of others who might use their economic power over him to dictate his political preferences. Economic, social, and political identities were closely linked together in many ways, leading some historians to maintain that economic equality is a precondition for political equality—a claim that is still very much alive today.
The central importance of work in human life is as deeply embedded within Christian and Jewish stories of the beginnings of humankind as it is within secular accounts of the origins and social conditions of democracy. Dorothy Sayers argues that in and through our work we should be expressing
our nature as beings who were created in the image of God. Sayers is not the only religious thinker who suggests that “in the beginning” human beings were made to labor and that their labor gave dignity, meaning, and purpose to their lives, but she goes further than most when she insists that we live in order to work. In the next selection, the Christian ethicist Gilbert Meilaender rejects her argument. After showing how certain interpretations of the Christian idea of “calling” have led to the mistaken notion that work is what gives meaning, purpose, and fulfillment to life, Meilaender lifts up instead the promise contained in Jewish and Christian Scriptures that rest
is what God intends for God’s people. We will read a selection that further develops this claim from a Jewish perspective in the chapter on the balanced life. In his account of the Sabbath (see pp. 435–40 below) Abraham Joshua Heschel agrees that God intended that human beings should labor, but he insists that we were finally made for rest, not for work.
All three of these selections acknowledge that work is important as a means of sustaining oneself and others economically. They diverge, however, on the question of how what we do matters when we consider who we are. One great difficulty with all the views that celebrate work and working men and women is perhaps best summed up by James Galvin in his novel The Meadow. “In the Depression a lot of people lost their lives,” Galvin wrote, “if your life is what you do.” Galvin was right. Unemployment during the Depression brought not only poverty; it also brought the despair that can accompany a loss of self. If we live to work, we may die if we have no work. If work is all that matters in life, then a life without work might not matter at all.
Two poems that consider why and how work matters in our lives follow:
- Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
- Margaret Piercy, “To Be of Use”
Frost joins Sayers in wondering whether doing work primarily because we want or need the money degrades the intrinsic meaning and pleasure that labor brings to a human life. For the speaker in Frost’s poem, working to live and living to work are in tension with one another. At issue is the relationship between work that is driven by the cash nexus of a capitalist economy and work that reflects God’s intentions for how humankind should live—a relationship the poet suggests is not a harmonious one. By contrast, the poet Margaret Piercy emphasizes the “usefulness” of work. Her praise of
the common work of the world suggests that she sees human labor as fitting both human identity and the needs of the world. While never denying how hard work can be, Piercy also seems to take delight in it.
The notion of “fitting” work developed by Russell Muirhead, the first author in this chapter, includes an awareness that those who work are often changed, in their character and view of the world, by the work they do. In other words, Muirhead thinks that what we do all day has a formative influence on who we become. The work we do “habituates and orients us in profound ways that over time impress a pattern on our emotional and intellectual life,” he writes; “this is why for many work cannot be merely another of life’s routines but is rather a key source of their identity.” If Muirhead is right, as we editors believe he is, thinking about “who we should be” is a highly significant part of any sound reflection about “what we should do.” Those who have the freedom to decide what kind of paid work they will do ought to include in their considerations what kind of person they hope to become.
Insight into the relationship between work and identity, in this sense, is evident in each of the three readings that conclude this chapter:
- a poem about a young man who rejects the life to which his job will likely lead him (Stephen Dunn)
- a poem that shows how a certain job has shaped someone’s character (Carl Dennis)
- an excerpt from a novel about a butler (Kazuo Ishiguro)
In this chapter we meet only one person—the butler in the final reading—whose life is focused on work to the exclusion of every other part of life. Others, like most of us, experience more complexity. It is within this complexity that we need to figure out what is primary. Gilbert Meilaender suggests that it is possible to value our jobs without making them primary, that is, without allowing them to control who we are and will become. Taking this position seriously does not mean that our days would be free from the demands and rhythms of work. Instead, it means that we would be able to step back to consider the whole shape of our lives and relationships, and there to see other points of meaning, such as friendship. Other people gain similar perspective on the whole of life—and a way of preventing work from being primary—in religious practice, wilderness adventures, immersion in the arts, or other life-shaping activities.
And yet, since we do not live in an economic and cultural vacuum, almost
none of us can evade the widespread assumption that the question of what it means to lead a life that matters should at least begin
with the question of our livelihoods. Coming to understand why
this is so is not the same thing, however, as coming to a conviction that it should
be so. And alternatives do exist. Widespread yearning for a more encompassing sense of identity has led to two different projects embraced by people who are troubled by the encroachment of work on their lives and sense of self. One project is the one undertaken in the present chapter, namely, an effort to challenge the prevailing ideology of work even as we acknowledge its power and, to some extent, its cogency. The other project, explored in question 4, is the quest for a “balanced life,” a life that makes room for sources of meaning and identity not derived from work.
Even in a context where such projects have great appeal, the character in this chapter whose identity is most thoroughly defined by his job—the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day—has more to teach us than we might imagine. In the selection included here, the butler, Mr. Stevens, is thinking hard about what it means to engage in his particular line of work with genuine excellence. His thoughts are prompted in part by the fact that working as a butler in a wealthy house—work Stevens calls a “vocation” and a “profession”—is fading as Britain departs from traditionalism and falls in power after the Second World War. Even so, Stevens remembers his years of “service” with great pride and seeks to carry on in this position even in a changing world. In the course of his ruminations, many of the themes at issue in Leading Lives That Matter come into play. Indeed, all four vocabularies in which we typically discuss what makes a life meaningful and significant are vividly, if subtly, at play in this passage.
Consider, for example, the question of what quality is most essential to an excellent butler. The answer, Stevens determines, is “dignity,” a virtue. Further, he argues that this virtue can be “acquired over many years of self-training and the careful absorbing of experience,” a point often made by those who advance the vocabulary of virtue. Elsewhere in the passage, Stevens weighs the merits of various butlers he finds worthy of admiration. What is it, Stevens asks himself, that made Mr. Marshall and Mr. Lane such great butlers? He and other household staff spent hours in earnest conversation about this very point, he recalls. These staff members, of course, were using the vocabulary of exemplarity. In addition, especially in the rest of the novel, Stevens thinks long and hard about how his work has contributed to some larger historical good. Though he is mostly confident that it did, readers may be less so. Still, this concern shows that Stevens and Ishiguro also think in the vocabulary of vocation.
The novelist crafting Stevens’s thoughts includes stories and language that may make readers uncomfortable about the persistent denial of self for the sake of the “excellent” and “dignified” service that Stevens and the butlers he admires sustained. Stevens does not
use the vocabulary of authenticity! However, listening to Stevens is likely to stir up this vocabulary in our own minds, as Ishiguro’s skillful creation of the thinking of the repressed butler prods readers to examine their own desire for self-expression. In the context of Leading Lives That Matter
, this should also prod us to ask where and how self-expression fits, or not, in other workplaces. Even though this novel works by indirection, it may actually be one of the most serious considerations in literature of the relationship between authenticity and vocation.
As we continue to explore important questions about lives of meaning and significance, it will make sense to bring Stevens to mind again. He has given, with his life, a clear answer to one of our key questions: “With whom and for whom shall I live?” The answer is his employer—and through him, Stevens believes, England. We should notice that Stevens’s “service” has been entirely “for” rather than “with” others, a distinction that will emerge in the selection by Samuel Wells in that chapter. We may also imagine Stevens pondering—or refusing to ponder—question 4, “Is a balanced life possible and preferable to a life focused primarily on work?” Yet the final question in this book may be the most difficult one for him. In a s...