Is Work Valuable?: A Question for the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

Is Work Valuable?: A Question for the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker May 1, 2017


“What do you do?” “Oh, I’m an associate/ a teacher/ a lawyer/ a writer/ a nurse.” Isn’t this how conversations go?

When asked about our activity, we respond with our role/position/title as a definitive mark of our identity. Our replies suggest that we believe are, as Aristotle once suggested, perhaps with greater accuracy, of both virtuous and vicious men, what we do. Perhaps this is the reason for title inflation: to consider someone a manager, even of household waste, is far better that to consider them a collector of trash.

When we consider whether it is good or bad to be such things, the most seemingly objective measure is a numerical one: the “value” of our labor is a fiscally enumerated one, and consequently our value becomes conflated with job we do which is measured by the wages we earn for doing it. You are worth as much as the current global economy suggests you are, measured in terms of what you make, not the worthwhileness of your work. What good, of what value, is Starry Night, if you spend so much time only to make one? What value can we find on the auction block?

I don’t know if you’ve seen them, but there are these infographics that float around social media every so often quantifying a mother’s work: how much would it cost to outsource all the labor a mother could provide in the home to someone else. Isn’t that odd? To say a mother is “worth” fifty thousand or fifty million dollars a year is to, in many ways, mistake the worth of a mother all together.

We might be what we do: we perform an act of mercy, and so we are merciful. We might perform an act of anger, and so we are angry. We might even give our time over to a work of art, or to loving another, or to cultivating a garden, or to offering the mass; we might be an artist, a lover, a gardener, or a priest. The things we give our time to might be of great worth, but it is not a worth contingent on the economic return, and thus possession and consumption, of a resultant artifact. The artifact may itself have worth—certainly O Magnum Mysterium does, certainly a book that captures the mind with its plot and its language does—but to see even the artifact’s worth as fundamentally economic is to exchange gold for bronze, our birthright for stew. In such cases, perhaps, the demand is high, but was the exchange a statement of the object’s value (and so the value of the object’s producer) or does the exchange serve instead to highlight the consumer’s foolishness? And where might we have stood, had we the means to obtain such things? And if we were willing to use such an extent of our means to obtain an object, what would the price tag most accurately measure? We might be what we do, after all.

This is not to speak poorly of work—work is a part of being human, and it isn’t necessarily a bad part. To write is work, to read philosophy is work, to dig in the garden is work, to heal another is work, to cook a meal is work, to teach is work, to govern a state is work, to manage an office is work. Some of this work is paid, and some of it is not. Some of this work might be more worth doing for the artifact (intellectual or physical) it brings about, and some of this work might be more worth doing for the sake of the persons we work for. Is the father or mother working two jobs to make ends meet engaged in a work of more or less value than an engineer working on prosthetic limbs or a mother up all night to soothe a feverish child? Perhaps there is some analysis that could be made, but to objectively analyze this might result in an universal statement like “religious life is a better good than marriage”: One answer might be better, abstracted from all particulars, but life is lived in the particulars.

I would propose that if we must attach a worth to work, that worth is not a fundamentally economic one; rather, work is worth doing because it enables us to live a more human life, and to live that life well. To work to support a family in the basic necessities of life is certainly a human undertaking: the family is the first community of human persons in society. To work to create a masterpiece, a work of beauty and perhaps function, depending on the art, is a human undertaking: as Dorothy L. Sayers notes, one of the first things Scripture tells us about God is that He is a maker, and man and woman are in the image and likeness of God.

To make something that we can call “good,” and to make something that is beautiful is to spend our time in a human way. Even if it is simply to make a sandwich, we all know there are better and worse ways of making it; our efforts at making a good sandwich align with our efforts to be more human, to live a little better. To work at understanding: God, the universe, math, how caterpillars march, is to seek to know. To work at loving others, seeking their good, and giving our brother our cloak when we have two is to seek how to love. As any who have attempted calculus or to keep their temper knows, these are certainly work; perhaps this sort of work is the kind that we must most detach from economic measures, because ultimately no economic incentive can compel us to live well.

But, then, to work well, to make work human, requires that we know what it means to live well. And to live well requires that we know what it is to be human and what sort of things humans ought to do, and we have a standard for imposing such judgment that is not simply reducible to economic calculations. What was the work of St. Joseph? He was a carpenter in a small town. And he was the husband of a humble woman. And he was a father of a small boy. His work: carpenter, husband, father. He was not economically successful, at least, he and Mary offered the sacrifice of a poor family at the Temple.

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the LORD’s command? Obedience is better than sacrifice, to listen better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22).

You are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.(Luke 10:41-42).

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him. (Matthew 1:24).

Is he not the carpenter’s son? (Matthew 13:55).

What is the worth of our work? What economy must we look to if we are to understand its value?

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