“Work: Alienation? Vocation? Vacation!” by Jolie Olivetti
January 31, 2016
Opening Words from “Revision” by Aurora Levins Morales
“The seams we made kept us from freezing in the winters of New York and put beans on the table in the years of soup kitchens. Puerto Rican women have always held up four-fifths of the sky. Ours is the work they decided to call unwork. The tasks as necessary as air. Not a single thing they did could have been done without us. Not a treasure taken. Not a crop brought in. Not a town built up around its plaza, not a fortress manned without our cooking, cleaning, sewing, laundering, childbearing. We have always been here, doing what had to be done. As reliable as furniture, as supportive as their favorite sillón. Who thanks his bed? But we are not furniture. We are full of fire, dreams, pain, subversive laughter. How could they not honor us? We were always here, working, eating, sleeping, singing, suffering, giving birth, dying.”
“What Work Is” by Philip Levine
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
I feel especially guilty when I fail to fulfill some aspect of my job. I’m not just referring to this job, here, I mean any job I’ve had, including when I was a watch vendor at Macy’s. For example, when I worked at a coffee shop in my neighborhood, sometimes I worked the shift that began at 4:45 in the morning. I overslept one cold March morning, buried under so many layers of quilts that I guess I couldn’t hear the alarm. After waking up in a total panic at 7:30, I got to work, and faced no serious repercussions. So even though I wasn’t really in trouble, after that, I would struggle to get any sleep at all the night before those early shifts. I’d toss and turn, too nervous that I’d miss my alarm again.
It’s not just mistakes that worry me like this; I am often unnecessarily concerned with whether or not my performance is adequate at work, and often assume I’m not up to snuff, for no particular reason. I think: “I made a mistake so I didn’t do my job right today, which means I wasn’t good at my job today, which reveals that actually I am not good enough for this job.”
Now, extreme worrying is like a tradition in my family, a tradition that I am proud to uphold, so I realize all this may sound more frantic and uncalled-for than many of your own internal monologues. But our jobs or lack thereof really do stress all of us out, and it’s not only because of the very real pressure to shelter, feed, and clothe ourselves and our families.
We are a stressed out people. According to an American Psychological Association study, huge numbers of us feel that we are under extreme stress. Also, most people surveyed for this study feel their stress is increasing each year, and people struggle to manage their stress, reporting that they know the level of stress they feel is unhealthy but they don’t have the time or resources to manage their stress levels. Sound familiar?
According to the same survey, the number one Reason people are stressed is money, and the number two reason is work. It’s the same across generations, and the pattern also holds across regions: East, West, and South – we’re all stressed about money and work. Though I’m sorry to say, us denizens of the East Coast are the most stressed out in the nation, and also we’re the most likely to report that we are too busy to deal with it.
Why does work stress us out so much? According to almost half of the respondents of a different survey, it’s because of an overly heavy workload. Other reasons include increasing job insecurity and the difficulty of juggling our work and personal lives. Furthermore, we work extra hard and we work a whole lot. Other studies show that Americans work more hours and at higher levels of intensity than any other industrial nation.
If having a job is stressful, so is Not having a job. The hardship that can accompany unemployment is not limited to the very real problems of how to keep the lights on and food on the table. Being unemployed can take an enormous emotional toll on a person, with links to social isolation, physical health issues, and depression. A man named Michael Dixon was interviewed for a 2012 article on his experience of being without a job, and his words cut to the core. He said, “It’s kind of like a feeling of, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me,’ and a sense of hopelessness. You really, really, truly start to question who you are.” Even though all these situations are different: a person seriously doubting himself as a result of being unemployed, an entire country buzzing with overworked and stressed-out workers, and me unable to sleep because I’m worried I’ve failed at my job, I think there’s a common source for these feelings about work.
I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the Protestant Reformation for our obsession with work. One thing that changed in the Reformation was that people started to think it wasn’t just monks and nuns who could have a “vocation” – a call from God. People began to believe we are all called to respond to God’s claim on our lives by fulfilling the obligations of our social position. In other words, by working.
And then there was John Calvin, and his ideas about predestination. Predestination means that God has fixed our ultimate destiny: God chooses whether we are recipients of divine grace and thus if we are saved, or, the opposite. God has decided whether we’re headed to heaven or hell. And we just don’t know which one we’ve been selected for.
So, a few centuries later, along came Max Weber, who theorized about the impact of Calvinism. Weber said that Calvinist Puritans in colonial America felt unbearable anxiety because of this idea that a person’s fate is sealed and unknowable. And he said that this anxiety had an outlet in work. Puritans and their descendants felt assured that they were heading to heaven by achieving fabulous success at the work that God called them to do. Surely wealth is a signal that someone is receiving the blessings of God. So this is the idea that developed: Do really well at your job and demonstrate that you are in God’s good graces. Go through hell at work and be assured of heaven in the afterlife.
Ok, but this is not a first year theology class. This is a Unitarian Universalist church! And there is a glorious Universalist intervention in this way of thinking. We can be saved from this bleak picture because we do not fear eternal damnation. We need not prove our worth at work. If we believe in God, we are sure that God’s love extends to all souls. If we believe that sacredness is rooted in nature or within human beings, we are sure of the ultimate goodness of those things, that despite our capacity to do great harm, there is also harmony and love available to all in this world. There is no chance of hell in our theology.
The problem is that though we know none of us is headed to hell, we are still subject to this way of thinking. The close association between our work and our souls that has been our Calvinist inheritance has this deeper consequence for some: we can be utterly consumed by our work, our identities confused with our job titles. The flip side of a total blending of self and work is reflected in Michael Dixon’s experience: being unemployed meant was losing his sense of self. We all deserve to know the fullness of our precious worth, whether or not we are currently working.
Furthermore, low-wage workers face stigma on top of the pressures of trying to make ends meet: for instance, working at a fast food restaurant is relegated to a boogieman-type warning: “Stay in school or risk flipping burgers for the rest of your life!” Not only is this insulting to people who do this work but also it’s a little hollow, because opportunities are scarce enough these days that someone may dutifully complete all kinds of degree programs and find that working at McDonalds is all that’s available.
I attended a march at Logan on Martin Luther King Day, organized by the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. Airport workers are demanding the right to a union and a fair wage. The people power was palpable as we marched around in the freezing cold, making our way to Terminal E, chanting, “¡Arriba la unión! ¡Abajo la exploitación!” “Up with the union! Down with exploitation!” People coming together like this, asserting their dignity as workers and human beings, flies in the face of this stigma against service work.
I read a poem about Detroit this morning. Detroit and nearby Flint – in the news lately for failing to provide clean water to its citizens – are like canaries in the coalmine of post-industrial America in the age of globalization. Philip Levine, the author, grew up in Detroit. The poem describes a line of workers waiting in the rain for hours, even though they know, as the poem says, “Somewhere ahead a man is waiting who will say, ‘No, / we’re not hiring today,’ for any reason he wants.” In the poem, waiting for no work in the rain blurs the narrator’s vision so he mistakes another worker for his brother. This fills the narrator with tenderness for his brother, who is elsewhere, sleeping off “a miserable night shift at Cadillac.” Soaked to the bone, seeing his brother in his fellow unemployed worker, the voice in this poem realizes he’s mistaken what work is.
I’ll admit it’s a little mysterious to me what work really is according to the poem, but I think it has something to do with recognizing ourselves in the other, something to do with love that defies the grueling realities of work.
The people of Detroit are not strangers to love that persists in hard times. I’d like to mention one particular Detroiter who was a resource to every major social movement of the 20th century: a philosopher named Grace Lee Boggs, who was active until her death just last year. Born in 1915, Boggs’ perspective about work was ripened by nearly a century of activism and deep thinking. Having witnessed the rise and fall of Detroit’s auto industry, Boggs emphasized evolution over revolution. She said that while most think of revolution as one group taking power from another, we should instead think of revolution as transforming ourselves, changing how we think and act in response to the massive changes that globalization has caused in a city like Detroit. In this time of real crisis, devastating income inequality and a scarcity of good jobs, Boggs asked, “How do we do the kind of daily activity that Grows our Souls so that we don’t have to make up for the indignities of our labor?” She goes on to say: “Jobs are not the answer; jobs are the problem. Now we’ve reached a stage where creating things can be done by robots. So what we have to do is create ourselves… better selves.” Boggs’ vision is very much alive in Detroit.
In Philip Levine’s poem about Detroit, there is no work, there is miserable work, but still, he sees his brother in another, and still, his brother insists on learning German and singing opera after working at Cadillac all night. In this poem, there is no work, there is miserable work, and there is still love. On all three occasions that I’ve visited Detroit, I witnessed defiant and creative responses to the crisis of no work: young people expressing themselves and gaining media skills in community-run arts programs, for instance, and neighbors coming together to plant gardens and cook what they grow for catering cooperatives. And Detroiters are demanding their right to continue existing, not to be erased with water shut-offs or an influx of self-proclaimed urban pioneers who have been told the city is empty.
So many Detroiters, faced with the loss of good jobs, are changing the idea of what work is. They are growing food, they are growing community, they are growing their souls.
Our Universalist belief in the worth of all souls should free us from the troubling confusion between a person’s self worth with their net worth. We don’t need to worry about proving to anyone that our souls are worth saving, which could save us from being overworked and overly stressed on the job. Easier said than done, perhaps, but we can try to live into this gift given to us by our faith tradition, and remember that our inherent worth shines through whatever’s going on at the workplace. Refusing to assign ourselves or someone else worth based on how much money we make fits perfectly with our Unitarian Universalist beliefs.
Huge problems remain with work in this country, though, with Detroit as a serious example. In this time of widespread unemployment, poverty, and income inequality, a change in attitude may not be enough to overcome these harsh realities. That’s why we can support workers’ efforts to unionize and get fair wages, like the people who work at Logan. And that’s why we can heed Grace Lee Boggs’ advice and turn our attention to the kind of work that transforms us and society itself, adaptations in response to rapidly changing conditions. We can learn from the people of Detroit, sharing what resources we have, creatively responding to crisis, turning to one another to find abundance even in the midst of scarcity. Rather than working to save our souls, we can work on growing our souls. Working for sustenance, working for change, working for love.
Prayer, slightly modified from
“Prayer of Blessing the Works of our Hands” By Diann Neu
Blessed be the works of your hands,
O Holy One.
Blessed be these hands that have touched life.
Blessed be these hands that have nurtured creativity.
Blessed be these hands that have held pain.
Blessed be these hands that have embraced with passion.
Blessed be these hands that have tended gardens.
Blessed be these hands that have planted new seeds.
Blessed be these hands that have cleaned, washed, mopped, scrubbed.
Blessed be these hands that are wrinkled and scarred from doing justice.
Blessed be these hands that have reached out and been received.
Blessed be these hands that hold the promise of the future.
Blessed be the works of your hands,
O Holy One.
Closing Words from Grace Lee Boggs
“We have survived throughout the ages by helping one another. People think economics and income are the main things driving people. But what has really driven people is the maintenance of relationships with one another. Each of the previous ways people looked at revolution was narrow – focusing on jobs, or women. We’re being forced form one society to another kind of society, and each one of us, no matter where we are, are trying to grow our souls.”