One of the prevailing narratives in pop culture is that work is for suckers. We wallow in fantasies of winning the lottery, picking the right stock, or striking it rich when our tech start-up gets grabbed by Google. We wish we were sitting on a beach somewhere with our toes in the sand and a drink in our hand as nearly every Kenny Chesney song testifies. Rap and hip hop are no different with their endless stream of imagery equating material excess with liberation. The message is clear—work is something to be escaped. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, work is a four-letter word.
This pervasive escapism speaks to the alienated nature of the contemporary worker. In capitalism, Karl Marx argued, workers are cut off from their essential nature. It is in our nature to create, he argued, to wrest raw materials from nature and fashion them into tools and other beautiful things. In this natural process our essence is contained in the thing we make. But when we work merely for a wage, and own neither the means of production nor the products of our labor, we lose touch with our essential self. We become strangers to ourselves, what T. S. Eliot called “hollow men.” Under these conditions, Marx declared, the only place where we feel whole is in the “freedom of our animal functions.” Sex and material comfort become our obsessions. All we have left is looking good and surrounding ourselves with the trappings of material culture. Listen to the lyrics of pop music and you’ll hear all the evidence you need. Pop songs circle around two principal fixations—sex and leisure. We look divine in the club, but Monday morning we’re back in the cubicle.
What if we’re wrong about work? What if we’ve misunderstood work entirely? What if work is not the means of our imprisonment, but the means of our liberation?
I know the animals aren’t talking, but I’m pretty sure if they did, they wouldn’t even have a word for work. They would just call it life. Wolves hunt elk, elk forage for grass, grass grows up through the soil, and birds scatter grass seeds—each inadvertently serving the needs of the other as it serves its own needs. It’s not work—it’s a way of being in the world. Their “work” makes them part of something larger than themselves. So does ours. Through our work we build the world.
When I was very young, like my brothers before me, I was drawn into the culture of work. It began with a few simple chores, whatever my small hands and feet could accomplish—cleaning bathrooms, sweeping the garage. When I grew a little older, I washed the car and mowed the lawn. Like a lot of kids I received a small weekly allowance. But I was never paid for chores. It was just understood—we all live here, so we all share in the upkeep and maintenance of this home.
When my mom cooked dinner she’d call me into the kitchen to help her chop celery or peel carrots. I learned the difference between mince, chop, and julienne. To this day the smell of frying onions is the smell of home, a celebration of the alchemical transformation of the earth’s elements into elixirs of life. Preparing food for people you love is not work, it’s worship.
I learned how to find pleasure in a well-set table, a communal meal, a beautiful garden, a clean bathroom, a made bed, and a well-organized garage.
Around the age of 12 the range of my work expanded. I began mowing lawns for neighbors. It was a pleasure to bring order to their chaotic yards, and a few dollars in my pocket felt exciting. Work was allowing me to wrest power and freedom out of thin air with the tools of my intention and will. Through these labors I came to embody the unshakable truth that no matter what became of me, I would always be able to offer my time, talent, and energy in the consciousness of service and be rewarded for my efforts. That’s a lot for a 12-year-old to take in.
The week I turned 16 I rode my bike to a supermarket a few miles from my house and applied for a job. An older friend who worked there vouched for me, and I was hired. I worked my way up from grocery bagger to stock clerk to cashier. I often worked until midnight, then got up at six in the morning to surf before class. The crazy schedule didn’t exhaust me—it energized me. Even in the cold winter rain I rode my bike back and forth to work. It never occurred to me to bother anyone for a ride. One day I missed a shift. I’d been struck in an intersection by a red light-running drunk driver. I wasn’t hurt too badly, but I did get a new bike out of the deal.
I ended up working at Vons for 22 years—through high school and college and grad school, through a few girlfriends, the last of which I married, and even into the first few years of my early teaching career.
You learn a lot of good things at work, like how to do things you don’t feel like doing, and how to be around people you don’t like. You can’t cut and run when things get unpleasant. Instead, you dig deep, honor your team, and push through. You learn that perseverance is more rewarding than preference. What you want to do is not nearly as important as what you should do. Duty is not a dirty work. When we offer our time, talent, and energy in the consciousness of service we are drawn inevitably into the fabric of our interconnectedness. And our own joy inexorably increases.
What if far from alienating us, work is the cure for our alienation? There were so many days, and there still are, when I don’t feel like working, but I suit up and show up anyway, and it happens every time—it turns out that when I drop my selfish resistance and give myself over to a purpose larger than myself, namely, the needs of others, I feel the weight of alienation lifting off of my shoulders. To be of service is to become intimate with life’s innermost secret—that none of us is ever alone, and that when we join forces together we affirm our true, authentic nature as beings of infinite value. This is a pleasure a self-absorbed hedonist can never experience.
I brought all of these dawning insights into my work as a musician, a writer, and a student of the world’s wisdom traditions. Playing guitar as well as I heard it in my head was going to take time, intention, will power, sacrifice, discipline, and commitment. Same with writing and academic pursuits. I knew it wasn’t mysterious. I knew that if I simply intended excellence and got to work good things would come. And they have.
When we protect our children from work, when we do everything for them, or when we pay them for chores, we rob them of this lifelong storehouse of embodied wisdom.
All work is service. All work is an opportunity to be a part of healing of the world. And anyone with eyes can see that the world is in dire need of healing. When we finally understand the real source of our joy, power, and freedom, who among us would ignore the call and hide away from the world of work?
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy
professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com