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by Linda Tiessen Wiebe and Cal Wiebe

WORK IS AN integral part of our lives, but often we get ensnared by it. Too much work, not enough, looking for the right work: these questions follow us throughout our jobs and hobbies. Recently, Cal and Linda both started new jobs and found themselves in the middle of these questions. Here are their reflections as they seek to understand the meaning of work.

Linda:    I'm tired of my job. I've been with this company for many years. I've gone through the cycle of enthusiasm for change, working for change, and cynicism that nothing will change. Lately, I tried working for a different department, hoping that a humane boss and newer technology would change my attitude. Instead, I find I'm tired of the politics, and tired of needing to prove myself to younger co-workers. I don't need a new job, I need a new way of understanding work.

In The Reinvention of Work, Matthew Fox explores an ancient four-fold spiritual path, originating from the early middle ages, that sees life in terms of negative, positive, creative and transformative aspects. Fox uses this perspective, called Creation Spirituality, to tackle the issue of redefining work and its role in our lives.

The Via Negativa allows us to acknowledge the drudgery and boredom of work, and how we live for the weekends. All work seems to have aspects of this negative energy at times; some work is nothing but this. The Via Positiva helps us to see the potential or intention of work as creation, as gift. We begin to see that all of our life is work, in that every aspect can be engaged as an expression of who we are. In Via Creativa, we understand work as a result of our being created in the image of a Creator God. The Creative path is the active result of the non-action reflections of the Negative and Positive paths. Between that tension, something new is born within us. We begin to see our work anew, or to see that we need to get out of bad work, because there is abundant good work out there.

What struck me most in The Reinvention of Work was the perspective that work is a gift and that all of life is our work. It reminded me of the idea of vocation, a calling from God, bigger than a particular context. Ultimately, my vocation is more about who I am rather than what I do, according to Meister Eckhart. And this happens in whatever context I'm in: at the water cooler, at a meeting, or talking with Cal over supper.

I had been discouraged before my vacation about how work can become too important if I think I have to make it happen. The work that needs to be done becomes secondary to ego concerns, both my own and my boss's. I begin to live for the weekend. Work as gift stretches me to see that there is more going on than the surface. Vocation is about responding to God in a context. In a sense, I can relax into this, even when I have many tasks to do. Even keeping my eyes open to this possibility changes my perspective and I feel more fluid.

One way self-importance comes up for me is through a sense of lack of time. This may be chronic for many people, but I find my response comes from a desire to control things instead of trusting a deeper direction within the busyness of life. Fox's reminder of the whole of life reminds me that worthwhile goals are important, but we never know the whole picture. My time at the office and my time working on the Watershed website are connected, part of a whole. The center of that whole is my desire to love God. Again I find this perspective freeing because there always seems to be enough time for what is necessary.

Cal:    Last spring I started a new job. I apprenticed to a contractor to learn the building trade. I entered with high hopes, thinking that finally I had found the job that was going to fulfill me. Not only did it offer the chance of better pay and a shorter work week but it promised to give me some more skills. I was hopeful that the newer skills would help me feel more confident about myself.

But the job has been a disappointment. I am learning the skills , the pay is better, and I drive a newer truck, but I still haven’t found what I am looking for. The dream job is just as often a nightmare with more pressure, constant deadlines and unrealistic expectations. So what went wrong?

That’s what I set out to discover as I looked through some books my friend recommended on the meaning of work. One of the books, To Work and To Love by Dorothee Soelle, speaks of work as a treadmill. She recounts that the treadmill was originally a means of torture and that many people today feel alienated from their work. We punch a clock and do what the boss tells us to but have no chance to do our own planning or develop our own strategies. Work becomes a form of wage prostitution and not an opportunity for growth or self-development.

Next I turned to some of James Fowler’s writings. Fowler talks more about vocation than about job. He writes that our vocation is linked to that place in our heart where we realize we are intended for some purpose beyond mere survival, that we are here on earth to further some cause that is of transcending importance. I began to realize that the questions, Who do you love? or What do you love? are vocational questions. I am being asked to look into myself and find the deeper motivations of my soul. I need to align myself with these motivations before I will be happy.

Fowler helps me realize that I am missing this element of devotion or service. I had taken the new job to fulfill some of my ego’s goals and desires but had forgotten that my soul will find satisfaction only when it is rightly related to God. I am on this earth not to aggrandize myself but to serve God and others. My happy work experiences always relate to this element of service. Even the simple act of doing flyers for a friend can be enjoyable when it is done in service to another.

I have just started to think in this new way about work and I find I am enjoying my work a little more. I am much calmer when the focus of my day becomes how I can be of service. Because it is part of my nature to be a servant, just being myself fulfills me. The questions that help me are not the skill-based questions - How do I do this? - but the more soulful questions - Am I being authentic when I go to work? Do my actions reflect those deeper motivations of my soul? Hopefully, by asking myself the right questions I can live myself into the right answers.

    "...be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to
    love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that
    are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers,
    which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live
    them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now."


For Further Reading

Anam Cara, by John O'Donohue
Becoming Adult, Becoming Christing, by James Fowler
Divine Milieau, by Teilhard de Chardin

The Reinvention of Work, by Matthew Fox

To Work and To Love, by Dorothy Soelle

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