By Richard Stone
(Author’s note: Below is one of a series of excerpts from a book that will be running for the next few months. Let us know if you’d like to see more.)
The book’s introduction says:
Living, like learning, is a process that has been sadly misrepresented by our society. With both, we are told there are right ways and wrong ways, things we should and should not do, things we should accomplish by a certain age if we are to be considered successful. With both, we are made to feel constantly graded (and often degraded) by external judges; and too often we begin to judge ourselves by the standards of others…But each of us lives and learns in a unique way, and no one else is competent to judge what is enough or when we are ready for more—or for that matter, what the “more” should be.
This book is based on a journey of exploratory reflections I have undertaken over the years to make my own way through the maze of self-understanding. Each chapter represents a category of life, and the categories are necessarily arbitrary and overlapping. But each, I believe, offers a useful point of reference, if the book’s purpose is rightly understood. That purpose is, simply put, to assist readers in considering their lives in a whole way.
From Work and Social Worth:
I work. That means I engage my energies in seeking sustenance. I use my intelligence and inner resources in creating appropriate responses to the circumstances I am enmeshed in. I strive in the service of ideas and institutions that benefit myself and others.
Our sense of worth is related, in large measure, for most of us, to our success in work. We typically interpret this to mean our involvement in “productive activity,” which provides us access to social assets—notably material goods, power and respect. To judge our social worth accurately, however, we need to go beyond the gross notion of “job” and “income” so readily used in this country.
As feminists have ably demonstrated, the value (and even the definitions) of “job” has been discriminatory. Occupations involving everyday maintenance are valued less than those directly involved with technical accomplishment or material production. Occupations dealing with children are “worth” less than those dealing with adults. Working for the wealthy counts more than for the poor. Intellectual labor has higher status than work with an emphasis on nurturance and emotional resources. Moreover, time spent in activity aimed at making money is self-justifying, while time spent for less tangible rewards is subject to question.
Homemaking, of course, epitomizes these biases. Sixteen hours a day can be spent at it, but it is still not considered work. It is a status, a state of life, a fate. Many other occupations (typically those viewed as women’s work, such as teaching, nursing, secretarial work) have been considered work a little more until very recently.
What I wish to look at here is not “job,” with its socially defined connotations, but the quantity and quality of socially productive work that one does. Some components of social utility to look at are:
1) Benefit: Do my activities (and not just their products!) contribute beauty, order, freedom, well-being, refreshment, intellectual stimulation, moral courage to others? It is important here to look at the net effect of activities rather than just their over intent. A doctor’s condescending attitude or carelessness may bring about an overall decrease in a patient’s well-being. A shop clerk’s courtesy may be a great gift.
2) Effectiveness: How many circles do my activities reach—family, neighbors, friends, special interest groups, a local population, a wider populous? How deeply does my work affect others— does it touch their material lives alone, or also their general ability to function, their minds or spirits? Is its impact brief or long-lasting, incidental or structural (i.e., does it change the way people organize and think about their lives?).
3) Completeness: We all work within a chain or system of related activities. Even an artist creating alone needs his or her work displayed, publicized, considered in a context. The question raised is, how fully do I feel integrated into the larger process I work within? Do I know more, am I capable of more, than my defined task allows me to demonstrate? Am I permitted to learn and expand my responsibilities? Do I understand, approve of, trust the decisions made around my work…or at least feel confident that my views and values are taken into account? In a broader perspective, do I feel that the process I’m part of is worthy of my time and attention? Have I thought through the impact of this process on society— in what ways is it beneficial and in what ways does it feed injustice, wastefulness, exploitation? Does this “work” address what I believe to be important, or at least allow scope to express my beliefs within the work setting? Or do I segregate my sense of social involvement from my job—in the classical terms of Karl Marx, am I “alienated from my labor?”
There are likely to be contradictions in the answers to these questions. I still have very mixed feelings, for instance, about a year spent working as an administrative clerk at a public agency. At first, there was the challenge of learning complex tasks and performing them with required efficiency. Also there was room for me to develop a few new procedures, and a decent mix of paperwork and people contact, sitting and moving, working alone and as a part of a team.
I felt the agency’s goals (providing housing assistance to low-income families) were worthwhile and were planned to minimize dependency. The administrative hierarchy was spotty but had enough intelligence and managerial skill scattered around to make life bearable. And the “office pool” I worked with was the real joy of the job—hard-working, cooperative, full of little surprises and human touches.
Yet, despite the good things, ultimately the job was not right for me. Partly, it took so much out of me that I couldn’t attend to other projects that had impelling importance. Partly it was the daily grind of a bureaucracy, where the work was judged statistically rather than personally, where the emphasis was on keeping the process smooth rather than engaging with the people we encountered. It was readily felt that our function was basically mechanical, although we were able to humanize it somewhat through our own initiative.
The experience confirmed for me the complexity of the notion of “work.” It showed the difficulty of discovering a true life-task, and not being seduced by a job taken for legitimate work-related reasons such as providing service, participating in a larger-than-self project and earning a livelihood.
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance and author of the book Hidden in Plain Sight. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.