As you may know, I’m a lawyer, and draft contracts and other arrangements for a living. Another way of looking at this is to say that I’m a bottom-feeder, and my job would not exist if people were honest with each other. Either way, lawyers spin no cloth and till no fields. My work, as with most modern office work, is heavily decontextualized, and I find myself far removed from any actual product or fruit of labor. This didn’t bother me very much — when I was younger my office jobs and grunt-work were frequently detached from the real world. This is a complaint of most modern office workers. But lately, I’ve been working long hours, slaving over documents that few people will ever read, and otherwise questioning my chosen profession. A part of this questioning has involved thoughts about being closer to people, working in a more hands-on way, and creating a more direct link between my efforts and an end product in the hands of the public. This may not be possible for a lawyer, or for anyone else raised and trapped in an “Office Space” world. I find myself wistfully thinking of becoming a tradesperson, such as a plumber or contractor, if only to witness the work of my own hands (this is, of course, total delusion — I have no skills for working with my hands and my home improvements thus far have been met with limited success).
Is this a typically Mormon thought process, or an American one, for that matter? I’m tempted to trace this kind of thinking back to puritan ethics and agrarian work culture, both of which are a part of LDS traditions. Lesson manuals are filled with missives about “The Value of Work” and how noble it is to truly earn your money (pay close attention, investment bankers and arbitrageurs!). These discussions seem inescapably tied to notions of a day’s work for a day’s pay and other concepts of work that somehow fall short of describing most modern professions. As a result of this (perceived?) inadequacy I’d like to try and establish a framework for evaluating work in God’s Plan to see if there are any rules or notions we can isolate as cultural relics, while identifying those divine gems that remain. Not an easy task, but here are some initial thoughts:
- Work is meant to be difficult. That is, we shouldn’t get something from nothing. The lot of the idler in scripture is fairly grim.
- We are meant to work in order to get by. The concept of an idle aristocracy or of people taking jobs as a mere diversion is repugnant, as a violation of the principle that life is to be about survival and progression, not comfort and stagnancy.
- Our jobs really do matter. I used to fall into the camp that asserts that within a certain range (i.e., legal) of activity, God doesn’t care what we do to earn our money. I now believe this to be false — or rather that the boundary of the defined range isn’t legality, but morality, as evaluated within the larger context of the purpose of work. p.s. I should also point out, on a slightly unrelated matter, that my wife Sumer thinks it’s OK that Marriott hotels sell in-room pr0n and alcohol, and if she owned a convenience store would have no problem in selling such things herself. I just wanted to get that out there.
I’m not sure where that leaves me, or what these ideas say about working in the modern world. Even worse, these principles lead me to perform value judgments on professions in ways I’m not comfortable with (i.e., most modern office jobs are bad for us). I also find myself unable to come to conclusions about the separation between workers and end-products (which seems to be the essence of work in modern society). Is there something I’m missing here? Let me know where I need to go from here, and I’ll continue in future posts.