Work and labor and joy

I’m reading The Human Condition by the philosopher Hannah Arendt. She distinguishes between labor, work, and action. The chief difference between labor and work is that labor is what we do just to stay alive, just because we have to. Whatever we produce through labor we consume soon afterwards. Work is when we start producing things we hope will last. We build houses and paint pictures.

Labor is something we do as part of the life cycle of nature. Work is something we do to escape from merely being a part of that cycle, to achieve a kind of immortality. We produces things. We make our world by making the things in our world.

The Greeks, says Arendt, recognized that work (and action) were only possible for someone who had been freed from the necessities of labor. The male property-owners of Athens were free to be craftsmen and citizens and philosophers because they had slaves and wives to do the labor for them!

Even though work is borne of freedom and labor of necessity, there is a natural joy inherent in labor. That joy comes not from accomplishing anything, but from participating in the cyclical processes of living and dying, of producing and consuming.

In that context, she wrote this very interesting statement:

The blessing of life as a whole, inherent in labor, can never be found in work and should not be mistaken for the inevitably brief spell of relief and joy which follows accomplishment and attends achievement.

In other words, the joy of labor doesn’t come from the joy of accomplishment. It doesn’t come from creating something lasting. If we are trying too hard to make a difference, we miss the joy of labor.

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I’ve been thinking in recent years about how much of my life has been spent chasing the goal of making a difference to the world. I wanted to accomplish things for God and for other people. I wanted to make my mark in the world.

As the years have passed I’ve begun to think that’s not a goal worth pursuing. This may be saying something similar.

God doesn’t need our help. In one important sense, our job isn’t to accomplish anything for him or the kingdom. It’s just to live our lives out in dependence on him and find joy in the process. Whatever he accomplishes through us, that’s fine. Whatever he doesn’t accomplish through us, that’s fine too.

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Ecclesiastes says something similar. After emphasizing that nothing we do has lasting significance, that it’s all part of a never-ending cycle, there is this:

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. (Eccles 3:9-13, NIV)

God has set eternity in our hearts. We have a yearning to be more than merely part of the cycle. We want to be part of something eternal. Yet we cannot. We cannot even fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

What we can do is to find joy in labor. We can simply enjoy producing and consuming and living out our days in grateful dependence on God.

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Every few days I have to clean my office again. It’s become unusable until I de-clutter it a little. If I think of tidying things up as work, as having to achieve something, it just gets depressing. I never make any progress, because a few days later I have to do the whole thing again! But if it isn’t work, if it’s labor, if it’s part of a never-ending cycle of living and and dying and growth and decay and so on, then there can be joy in the process.

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I think sometimes that I’m a good teacher but not an effective one. I spent a lot of time this semester doing whatever I could to make my classes good for my students. At the end of the semester I assign grades and that’s that. Did it all have a point to it?

I suppose, looking back, that there were some exceptional moments. There were times when I saw the light bulb turn on for a student, times when a class suddenly came alive in discussing a particular math problem or philosophy question, plenty of times when I saw students stretch mentally to grasp a complicated idea.

Most of the time, though, teaching (and taking) classes is like everything else — lots of routine. Nothing memorable. A long, slow process of talking and asking questions and walking through the important material. A lot of the work I put into my classes just disappears at the end of the semester without a trace. Most of the students’ effort does the same.

Maybe that’s normal. And maybe it’s perfectly okay. I don’t think this has to be bleak. I don’t feel bleak, I think. Just sort of drained after a long semester, and glad not to have to reach for greatness.

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