Renewing Gratitude: Work

I am lucky to have a job, and, boy, do I know it.

Being an academic can be a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing insofar as I am able to earn my livelihood doing something I love, namely, studying and teaching theology. It is a curse insofar as I am only able to earn a living this way if someone is willing to hire me to do it, and that is a big “if” these days. Due to the economic downturn and a generation of professors who have forestalled retirement longer than expected, hundreds of PhDs are often competing for a single position. I was fortunate to find a job after only two years on the market. However, many of my peers, including some brilliant people from the country’s best programs, have been looking for jobs for three or four years.

How you react to this last sentence likely depends on your own work history. If you have been blessed with steady employment all your life, you may read these lines and think benignly, “Yes, what a pity.” If you have ever endured a period of unemployment, however, you are likely to have a very different, much more visceral reaction. You may experience a resurgence of anxiety because for you “unemployment” is not just a sterile economic term typically followed by some percentage that doesn’t mean much to you. Rather the word is packed with terrible meaning and memories—long hours working on resumes and applications, the stress of being constantly scrutinized, the frustration of being turned down or ignored, the constant worry of whether you would be able to pay the next month’s bills.

Obviously academics are not the only ones who endure the tribulations of unemployment. Today roughly one in 20 Americans (4.9%) is unemployed. At the peak of the Great Recession in 2009 it was one in ten. And we are the lucky ones. American unemployment rates are typically lower than rates of unemployment worldwide and much lower than many other countries. France has an unemployment rate of 9.9%. Ireland’s unemployment is currently at 11.6%. Spain’s is 24.7%.

Sobering as these statistics are, they give those of us with jobs ample reason to be grateful for steady employment. However, just because jobs are at a premium does not mean that workers should have to compromise their human dignity in order to hold on to a job. Sadly, this is sometimes the case. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, there are service industry professionals like waiters who have to put up with demeaning treatment from customers and managers because standing up for themselves might mean losing their job. On the other end of the spectrum are the thousands of Syrian child refugees in Turkey who are currently being exploited for cheap labor because they do not enjoy the same legal protections as citizens and adults. Although the degree of grievousness varies, both cases represent a violation of the dignity of human labor.

From the beginning, God bestowed upon human beings a vocation to work and deemed their work good (see Gen 2:15). Jesus reiterated the sanctity of work by drawing upon examples of human work—fishing, farming, baking, etc.—to teach people about the reign of God. The Church has continued to affirm the goodness and dignity of human work in modern Catholic Social Teaching. Pope John Paul II, for example, wrote in Laborem Exercens that “the fundamental value of work… is bound up with the dignity of the human person” (no. 23).

It is difficult to fully appreciate the inherent dignity of human work and the dignity that work gives to human beings until one is deprived of that dignity. Anyone who has sat idle while peers go off to work, failed to pay bills, or been treated with disdain while collecting unemployment benefits knows the shame and indignity that comes with being unable to work.

In this way Church teaching affirms what we know from lived experience—human work has great dignity and worth. Of course, our work is easy to take for granted when it is secure. It can easily become one of the most routine aspects of our lives and even a source of frustration when annoying tasks or difficulty coworkers are part of the routine. But when we are deprived of work or compassionately consider the lot of others who are unemployed, we are reminded what a gift it is to be able to work. This gratitude can bear fruit in the form of greater enjoyment in the work that we do, and, if we are true to our Christian faith, it should also bear fruit in appreciation for those who serve our food, kindness to our coworkers, and defense of our society’s most vulnerable workers.