Shark Tank's Daymond John. Image: Marco Grob
I read a book many years ago entitled On the Theology of Work. It impressed me. I might go further and say that it was part of a process which set me on a road in which my vision of life and its purpose led me to a very good place.
However, now, in the 21st century, it seems that another book is called for. We still need that earlier book but more urgently we seem to need a book entitled “On the Pathology of Work”.
A cri de coeur came from Erin Griffith writing in the New York Times last weekend about a rather frightening world of work apparently unfolding before us now. She described a new culture of work and the workplace, “obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and — once you notice it — impossible to escape. ‘Rise and Grind’ is both the theme of a Nike ad campaign and the title of a book by a ‘Shark Tank’ shark.”
This new culture glorifies ambition not just as a means to an end, but as a lifestyle, an end in itself.
Life for the younger generation immersed in this culture, she explains, is just about ambition, grit and hustle – everything of value about work comes from this striving. It is a culture in which work is about engaging in “a sweat session that sends your endorphins coursing … a vision which “expands your way of thinking.”
Work for its disciples never really stops and they don’t want it to stop because it is the source of their rapture.
When these people take exercise it is only to ensure that they can continue to get their highs on the job; if they take time off to relax with music it is a necessary evil – because if they don’t they might underperform in the job.
The evangelists of this new culture don’t say this, but in fact their model of work is a drug on which you get high and the more you engage with it on this level, the more you need to. It is a one-way ticket to “workaholism”.
Is this not just one other symptom of our age falling victim to excess?
Just as when human beings dissociate their appetite for food from the purpose of that appetite they fall victim to obesity; just as when the sexual appetite is dissociated from its purpose, love itself is obliterated and men and women become slaves to that appetite.
All these excesses have been with us forever, but they have not, I think, been with us as epidemics. Now they are, and this hunger-for-hustle is the latest. While the other excesses are promoted through advertising and popular culture in an indirect, often subliminal way, this one is straight up front.
Where do you find it? In the new media: One37pm, Hustle, The Work Company, for example; also in the coaching manual of Daymond John and Daniel Paisner, Rise and Grind: Outperform, Outwork, and Outhustle Your Way to a More Successful and Rewarding.
But this is not just a path to “workaholism” and the destruction of individual lives, it is also a dark path to an oppressive social and political philosophy.
It is utterly elitist, a path to a world where the weak and vulnerable will either be patronized, marginalized or worse, exploited. Who will do the myriad of jobs required to keep the ordinary world moving, jobs not particularly attractive in themselves but on which our lives may even depend: the supermarket check-out operator, the street cleaner; the security man who sits at a desk all night, the surgeon who tends our ailments in the lower gastrointestinal regions of our bodies.
That a job does not give you kicks does not negate its value. Value is rooted in much more than our self-centered personal satisfaction, although hustle culture seems to have no time for anything else.
Isabel Hardman, in a book about the shortcomings of our political systems, faulted members of parliament who neglected the tedious work of scrutinizing pending legislation in the pursuit of what they saw as the more “exciting” work of government and the vanities it panders to. She wrote:
“Yes, the rewards in applying oneself to proper scrutiny are few. But this is a poor excuse for those who are supposed to be public servants.
The rewards for being a (GI) surgeon are also few, according to the measures that MPs use: spending a lot of time with the lower digestive tract is not glamorous given the sort of things you can encounter when that tract has gone wrong.
People don’t really want to talk about bowel movements at a dinner party, and so avoid discussing your job with you. You are rarely interviewed on the radio about the laparoscopic rectopexy you performed that week.
Being an MP involves dealing with a different sort of s**t, but parliamentarians have ostensibly signed up to dealing with it in the same way as lower GI surgeons have signed up to the realities of their job.”
Work and the human race have been in partnership in this world for a long time — since the blissful days in the Garden of Eden of which the Judaeo-Christian account of our creation tells us.
What On the Theology of Work reassuringly brought to my attention all those years ago was that man and woman in that happy place were not just twiddling their thumbs. They were given an important job to do.
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” All this was no burden to the couple until they decided they knew better than the Lord God and messed up. Then came the blood sweat and tears — but that was their own doing.
The activity of work itself is amoral. It is simply the application of energy, skill and intelligence to a task. Good or evil may come from it. To glorify it for its own sake is evil and dangerous, as the slogan over the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp showed.
The history of mankind is the history of mankind’s activity and an account of the good and evil done throughout history. This history tells us of the glories of our civilizations, ancient and modern – the great art, the great monuments, the acts of kindness and mercy.
It encompasses the work of Euripides, Euclid, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Mozart; the work of the great educators and, in our own time, the works of mercy of people like Teresa of Calcutta.
These are all the fruit of not just work, but of work done for a purpose; it was the purpose for which they were done as much as the effect achieved which made them great and good.
There have been other works, all of them requiring as much blood, sweat and tears, but they have been evil in their purpose and effect.
For that reason we list them among the horrors inflicted on our race: brutal conquests of peoples; barbarities motivated by greed; the genocidal crimes of Genghis Kahn, Josef Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot – all requiring hard and unrelenting work.
Therein lies the danger of a new culture which elevates work as an end in itself and measures its value by the degree of personal satisfaction its performance gives us. Within that there is no moral framework.
Without a moral framework our work is at best a loose cannon, indiscriminately destroying anyone and anything that happens to be in its path.
But for the persons who possess a moral framework to guide them in their actions, the work they do will truly be a fulfilling thing, even more fulfilling when it is in the service of humanity itself.
For the humanist without faith in the supernatural order, this will be true. But for the humanist with faith in the divine order it will in fact be holiness – because for them it will be a conscious participation in the work of creation, under the guidance of all that has been revealed by the Creator Himself.
The author of On the Theology of Work cites the founder of the Catholic organization Opus Dei (the Work of God), St. Josemaría Escrivá, in his book. He recalls the saint’s words and comments on them:
“‘Convinced that man has been created ut operaretur (Gen 2:15), we know well that ordinary work is the hinge of our holiness and the right supernatural and human means of bearing Christ with us and allowing us to do good to all’ (14 February 1950).
This commandment to work, given by God at the very beginning of history, was a favourite reference point of the founder of Opus Dei in his preaching: God created man to work; that was his intention, even before man sinned: work is not a curse or punishment; no: work is a way, an opportunity, to share in God’s plans.”
Michael Kirke writes from Dublin and blogs at Garvan Hill.