Karl Marx claimed that the work we do determines who we are. That is, our identities as individual human beings are created by what we do from 9 to 5.
That’s one of the big reasons he was critical of capitalism. Marx contended that before capitalists took people off the land or out of their shops to work in factories for wages, workers got a lot of meaning and satisfaction from the work they did. Farmers took pride in plowing a straight furrow and harvesting wholesome grain. Bakers felt good about taking the farmer’s wheat and with skill and hard work producing tasty, nutritious bread.
Sure, they liked the money they earned, but their work wasn’t just about the money. Their work was part of who they were. That’s why Marx used the terms “exploitation” and “alienation” to describe what happened to us when we got seduced or in many cases coerced into working for money in jobs that were mindless, repetitious or unhealthy. As wages increased, we became able to afford a higher standard of living in terms of the stuff we were able to acquire, but many of us felt like we were losing our souls – or at least our sense of who we are.
Ask the merchants up and down Madison Street to tell you their stories, and many will say that before they opened their businesses here in town, they were bankers or lawyers or accountants or stock brokers. Two of them still have seats at the board of trade downtown.
Now, they will tell you, they are working much longer hours and making a lot less money. Why? Because, possibly with knowing it, they are agreeing with the philosophical father of Communism that our work can either enhance our humanity or slowly dehumanize us.
“Nice theory,” some will argue, “but you have to pay the bills.”
That’s true, but the size of the bills we have to pay is determined by the amount and size of the stuff we purchase. There’s a story about two servants of a king who commanded both to do something distasteful and unethical. The servant who refused to comply was banished from the palace. When the servant who followed the king’s orders came to visit his former co-worker, he found him dwelling in a small hut and living on a diet of rice and water.
“If you obeyed the king,” said the servant who was still living in the palace, “you wouldn’t have to be living in this shack and eating rice.”
“If you had learned to live on rice and water,” replied the other man, “you wouldn’t have to obey the king.”
This nasty recession we’re supposedly coming out of has forced most of us to think seriously about work. Being without a job is a hardship, but thankfully, because we live in a country that has a safety net, including unemployment benefits, we can still pay most of our important bills, at least for a while, even when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune bring us down.
But being on unemployment or disability or getting a job with a reduced salary has enabled some of us to discover that we can have a pretty good life on a diet of “rice and water.” The best things in life really are free.
I just met a man who retired at the age of 60 and went to “work” at Christ the King High School in the Austin neighborhood as a full-time volunteer. He didn’t receive a dime for the thousands of hours of work he did for the school, but graduation of that school’s first class was, he told me, one of the proudest, happiest days of his life.
This side of heaven, we all have to make tradeoffs in the choices we make regarding how me make a living. Very few of us get to follow our passion to the extent we would like. But if we are honest, many of us let the size of our paycheck seduce us into occupations that cheat us out of the meaning and satisfaction in life we all desire.
We can’t just snap our fingers, of course, and get jobs that are meaningful. If I were out of work, I’d take any job I could find. But if we keep our eyes open and understand what is really important in life, there will be forks in the road where choices can be made, and determining now what is most important can help us make good choices when they become available.