On Labor Day and the meaning of work

Faith & Inspiration

On Labor Day let us first consider the dwarfs, who in Disney's Snow White have much to teach. Each day they march off to the mines singing:

"We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in our mine the whole day through / To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig is what we really like to do."

Snow White herself teaches the forest animals to love housework with the wonderful work song, "Just Whistle While You Work." And her own love of work makes cleaning house a transcendent experience.

Our culture's work hierarchy sells us short by sneering at work like "flipping burgers," as though we should judge people by what they do rather than how they do it. But flipping burgers has built good job habits into generations of workers, and some of those would put many CEOs to shame.

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I don't think God ranks our work at all. I don't think he values neurosurgeons more than janitors, or airplane pilots more than parking lot attendants, or U.S. senators over stay-at-home moms. Judging by what He has told us, those who do the most lowly and unappreciated work may well find greater favor in God's sight.

After all, God has great love for "the least of these." No fewer than seven passages remind us that the "first shall be last" and others note that the "Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Does that mean that someone with a status-packed job can't find favor with God? Not at all. It all depends on attitude.

I think of the pediatric surgeon who treated a teeny baby with Down syndrome as if he were a crown prince and his worried parents as if they were all that mattered in his busy day. Only later did we learn that Michael Harrison was famous for his work in pioneering prenatal surgery. Sadly, we don't see that combination of high status and humility as often as we should.

But we can remember that "Work is love made visible," as Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese American Eastern Catholic poet/philosopher/artist, put it in The Prophet, his best-known piece:

"And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. For if you bake bread with indifference you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger. And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine."

I do not want to feed but half man's hunger, and I'd rather not distill poison in the wine. I want to work because I love - and finally, to learn to love even more because I worked.


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