The Gift of Good Work

by Dr. Mark Mitchell
November 23, 2010

Mark T. Mitchell is Associate Professor of Government and the Chair of the Government Department at Patrick Henry College. He is the author of Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing (ISI Books) and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (forthcoming, Potomac Books). He is the co-editor of The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry (forthcoming, ISI Books). Currently he is writing a book on private property and freedom.

During this season dedicated to giving thanks, my thoughts—provoked by the calendar and images of contented Pilgrims—turn to gratitude. Even in comparatively difficult times, there is still much to be grateful for. After all, the Pilgrims themselves suffered much prior to and after their meal of thanksgiving.

A day given to feasting and rest in the company of family and friends is also a day where work (save that required to prepare the meal) ceases. We turn aside from the daily tasks of our lives to feast in the company of loved ones. Yet, what if every day was a feast? What if every day was given to rest, eating, and relaxation (and perhaps even football on the television)? When considered from that perspective, it quickly becomes clear that days of rest and celebration require days given to other things.

This suggests that one of the things for which we should be grateful is work, for, bereft of work, a day of feasting and rest is quite meaningless. But what does it mean to be grateful for work? Doesn’t work represent drudgery? Isn’t work the very part of our lives (a significant one at that) where our freedom is subsumed by demands of bosses and deadlines and annoying co-workers? If this is the case, then work is at best a necessary evil and permanent relief from it would represent an amazing stroke of luck.

Yet something about the foregoing seems amiss. We have all known moments where work well done produces such a clear sense of satisfaction that to call this a necessary evil is to deny the goodness that we so obviously know and feel. Could it be that work itself is a good? If so, why, despite the satisfaction that occasionally rises to the surface, do we so often see work as a burden? What is it about work that calls forth such opposing thoughts and emotions?

I am currently reading Upton Sinclair’s classic muckraking novel The Jungle. While one thrust of the book is the appallingly unsanitary practices of the meat packing industry, another important theme is the degrading way that workers were chewed up and discarded as disposable means to securing profits for the owners. The overwhelming scale of the meat production industry was made possible by automation, whereby individual workers performed one simple and discrete task for ten hours or more each day. Few jobs required any real skill, and most could be mastered in a matter of minutes. In such contexts, work is stripped of its meaning, for the worker can never experience the satisfaction of completing a final product. He has nothing he can point to and say with satisfaction “that is the work of my hands.”

One aspect of good work, then, seems to include the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to a larger whole. Yet even when our work is not simply repetitive motions in an assembly line, the scope of our attention can shrink so that our work lacks any larger context. According to Wendell Berry, “much modern work is done in academic or professional or industrial or electronic enclosures. The work is thus enclosed in order to achieve a space of separation between workers and the effects of their work...” Part of responsible—and therefore truly satisfying—work is knowing that what we produce with our hands and minds is good in the broadest sense. As Berry puts it, “the name of our proper connection to the earth is ‘good work.’”

If, as Berry suggests, there is such a thing as good work, there is also such a thing as bad work. Bad work fails to account for the context within which it occurs. Bad work is myopic. Richard Weaver notes that thousands of highly trained specialists worked for years on the Manhattan Project. The secret nature of the project precluded most from having any clear knowledge of the end toward which they labored. According to Weaver, this ignorance, embraced quite willingly, reduced the participants to “ethical eunuchs.” Because they paid no attention to the purpose of their work beyond the narrow confines of their specialty, they forfeited the ability to judge the quality of their work. An inability to attend to the quality of one’s work invariably leads to bad work.

Good work is intimately tied to stewardship, and this reminds us that, in the Genesis account of creation, the first man and woman were placed in a garden and tasked with tending it. Paradise, it seems, was not a condition of idleness and ease but one of meaningful work interspersed with regular days of rest, of re-creation, of Sabbath.

This natural suitability to work is hardwired in all of us. I see it in myself and I see it in my children. Even if they groan when I tell them there is work to do, they derive a great deal of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment when they look back at the pile of leaves they raked or the fence they painted. My thirteen-year-old son works each Saturday for a neighbor, quite willingly getting up even on cold mornings to spend a few solitary hours working on our neighbor’s property. The work is nothing special but the standard of excellence is clear, and he can take pride in doing good work. Having a job has, in fact, moved him well along the road to becoming a man.

Recently I tiled the floors of our bathrooms. My son helped me lay the tile and grout the seams. Together we carefully aligned tiles that transformed the work zone into a lovely room. When we finally stood back to admire our work, we knew we had done a good job. No one needed to validate the goodness of our work, for the standard of excellence was obvious to all.

Those of us who spend most of our days working with ideas that all too often thin into mere abstractions are, I think, in danger of forgetting the full goodness of work even as we struggle to accomplish all that we have to do. The heft of a hammer in the hand, the jolt of a shovel striving against rocky soil, the ache in the back at the end of a day in the garden, these provide a connection to the world and a satisfaction in work needed to complement the vagaries and abstractions of the world of ideas. It might even be that the latter kind of work provides a necessary grounding for the former.

So on this day devoted to giving thanks, lift a glass or a turkey leg to good work. Give thanks to the cook who prepared the meal with skill and devotion to the art. Give thanks that our lives provide continuous opportunities to engage in the kind of work that is suited to our embodied condition and our creative natures. And let us joyfully give thanks to God from whom these blessings flow.

A version of this essay was originally published online on Front Porch Republic (November 2010).