The God-Given Task
"What gain have the workers from their toil?" asks the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 3:9.
I feel like many workers in the United States are asking that question right now. Quiet quitting, quiet hiring, career cushioning...Some say that these are new phrases for old dynamics. But, these dynamics just seem more omnipresent than they used to be.
I don't know that it's a bad thing that younger generations are questioning the status quo. Perhaps it's not the wisest approach, but I don't think an unquestioning acceptance of working in the ways that we've worked for the past few decades is the wisest approach, either.
There's a reckoning perhaps occurring in the American workforce these days.
And yet, as Ecclesiastes says, "there is nothing new under the sun."
I really like the read-through-the Bible approach where one works through the Old Testament, New Testament, and Wisdom literature simultaneously. It helps break up long books with other readings and also ensures that you don't spend the better part of a year excluding one of the Testaments. I'm at Ecclesiastes for my Wisdom literature readings right now.
Everyone loves the start of Ecclesiastes 3:
For everything there is a season, and a time for ever matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up...
We can sing along with The Byrds' rendition of Turn!Turn!Turn! This passage is poetic, deep, comforting, provocative. So many things.
But my attention on this particular read went to the more neglected passage right after it which, in my NRSV translation, is subtitled, "The God-given task."
It opens like this:
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds; yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. (verses 9-13)
There's a lot there as well. I wonder in particular about the last line: are we taking pleasure in all of our toil these days? If not, why not?
I've been reading Dorothy Sayers lately (shout out to my daughter who bought me "Creed Without Chaos" for Christmas!) and gave a talk around Valentine's Day about the theology of work where I incorporated Sayers' fantastic "Why Work? " article. Here's a relevant excerpt:
The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done. To do so would mean taking the attitude of mind we reserve for our unpaid work – our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure – and making that the standard of all our judgments about things and people. We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “Can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?” And shareholders in – let us say – brewing companies, would astonish the directorate by arising at shareholders’ meeting and demanding to know, not merely where the profits go or what dividends are to be paid, not even merely whether the workers’ wages are sufficient and the conditions of labor satisfactory, but loudly and with a proper sense of personal responsibility: “What goes into the beer?”
I find Sayers to be incredibly consistent with the Teacher's writings in Ecclesiastes. We would take pleasure in our toil if we changed our thinking (and, therefore, our actions) toward work. To look at the intrinsic rather than the extrinsic. To focus on the quality and meaning and usefulness of the work rather than the payout, the trappings, the prestige.
I spoke with a dear colleague this week who, like me, works in academic administration. It can be exhausting to patiently navigate when people's primary focus seems to be their interests, their rights, their satisfaction, and what is best for them. This is understandable from a union approach, but it's like we're all serving as heads of our own personal unions. I'm not against advocacy, or whistleblowing, or speaking up, or making sure that one isn't neglected or forgotten. I do each of these things with some regularity. But, it's the lens. We can't move forward without a "we." Our nation has seemingly become a workforce of infinite "ones," all with competing interests and needs. It's so very refreshing in pockets where this isn't the case!
There is no joy in all of this striving. It's all vanity and striving after the wind, as Ecclesistes says in its opening (v. 14). I am convinced, from positive psychology research on happiness that it is impossible to derive pleasure and joy from a perpetual focus on the perpetual "I." It's like we are designed to be and feel fully human only when we can participate in and understand that we are part of a bigger cause, a higher good, something that serves others and contributes to making something better.
Forbes featured an article on this topic back in March (https://www.forbes.com/sites/tracybrower/2023/03/19/purpose-may-be-the-key-to-happiness-3-reasons-why/?sh=1fcc88c15427), opening with this:
Happiness is a worthy goal—and one most people seem to be striving for. But contrary to common belief, you won’t achieve it by pursuing it for its own sake, by focusing on yourself or by achieving the traditional trappings of success.
In reality, happiness comes from more than these, and one of the primary origins of happiness is a sense of purpose.
Purpose contributes to happiness—when participants in a study felt a greater sense of purpose, they tended to feel more positive emotions—specifically contentment, relaxation, enthusiasm and joy. And they felt less angry, anxious, sluggish or sad. They also reported greater satisfaction with life and overall wellbeing. This was according to a brand new study by Kaylin Ratner published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
Many other studies have linked purpose with all kinds of benefits from reduced mortality and incidence of cardiovascular disease to less loneliness. Greater purpose was also correlated with better outcomes for companies—like growth, market expansion and successful product launches. Employees also saw upsides of more purpose-driven work environments in terms of feeling like work was more meaningful, feeling happier and bring more productive.
The article goes on to say that the downside of being "purpose-driven" is the inherent pressure that may go with this--and don't I know it! It's like core to my personality to take personal responsibility for everything within my sphere. Still, these things can be managed, and I'm coming off a week where, thank the Lord!, some better practices emerged (it didn't hurt that I'm under the weather, which encourages me to just...stop doing, to draw the lines where I'd typically be tempted to work past, push through, and just wear down). As I prayed to the Lord, "God....I am not god! I surrender what I can't control to you. Help me to focus on what I can control, which is pretty much just myself. In fact, let's work on that right now and ferret out the dark parts within my heart." And, while I prayed this to the Lord, I continued my advocacy and speaking up, and all those things on behalf of myself and all within my sphere, but that edge of desperation was tempered off. It's in His hands.
Anyway, back to purpose. Aside from the temptation toward overwork (note this, you teachers and healthcare workers...all of us who enter our fields from a deep sense of calling and purpose!), being purpose-driven in one's work is almost entirely upside.
And Ecclesiastes shows us this. If we unpack that last line again ("moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil"), we're told to pretty much mind our own business, enjoy the small things and the small pleasures, see them all as God's gifts, take pleasure in them (which requires a kind of mindfulness...another good reason to pursue contemplative practices and some good positive psych principles)....and, specifically, take pleasure in our toil.
It's still toil. I'm learning French right now for an upcoming trip to Paris (and an office-wide Duolingo competition--shout out to this fantastic Pittsburgh-based company!) and the French word for work is "travail." Isn't that just too perfect? Toil and travail. This side of heaven, these connotations will still be part of our work experience.
But that still shouldn't prevent us from taking pleasure in it.
Dorothy Sayers had some great ideas for how to do this. She said, "work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do."
The one thing that saddens me from all the opting out in the workforce right now (again, I understand the impulse and respect much of it) is the removing what could be one of the greatest sources of meaning in one's life. Those of us who grew in the 1980s and 1990s were indoctrinated by many films showing us the great harms of a parent overworking and neglecting their children. The ending narrative arc involves the parent seeing the errors of their ways, perhaps perfectly depicted by Robin Williams' Peter Pan character in Hook tossing his 90's-era cell phone into the snow, the voice on the other end still bleating out as it falls from the window. Hollywood has neglected stories of how a child's life can be enhanced, blessed, and transformed through the modeling of a life well-lived when one does excellent work and derives pleasure from it (my own studies explore this somewhat, from some of my early research on student mothers and the impact on children of their mothers going back to school. Role enhancement rather than role detraction)?
I've seen this firsthand in watching my own mother's work as a high school teacher, which had a profound impact on me.
Purpose and pleasure. I'm reminded that the King James translation (and The Byrds' song) opens this entire section with, "To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven."
And so, I am encouraging myself and readers to learn from Sayers and Solomon (probable author of Ecclesiastes). Whatever is happening in the workforce right now, use these times of change to return to wiser ways of being--healthier, saner, more whole approaches that neither involve worshipping work nor chucking it all, but following the created order and wise leading of the Lord to take pleasure in all of our toil, and to do so by seeing the larger purpose in even the most mundane tasks we do.