Saturday, September 13, 2014

Is Work Honourable?

After a late night of good food and wine a discussion, albeit a short one, arose stemming from the question: is work honourable? My beliefs made me side with the negative: work in itself had nothing to do with honour, it is who you are while at the job.  My companion was opposed and adamant in her statement that, indeed, it was. She said it is about care of self while being part of community.

It all started after she asked me how I was keeping busy. I said I was leading the proverbial artist’s life—working at my writing and building a therapeutic practice while being a part-time cashier at a big box store. I spoke excitedly about the first two and then likened the latter to being at the bottom of the career food chain. I described how one’s perspective widens down there, especially when the transition happens mid-life, and how you really get to know who you are when all pretenses are removed. I’ve learned a lot, I said.

Hearing only the negative, she replied: All work is honourable.

I am not too sure about that, I sallied back, it is more about who I am at work then what I am doing. 

The job puts food on your table, she insisted, and you are contributing to society. It is honourable.  I wanted to say more but I knew the metaphoric door had already closed. Besides that, she seemed to be taking it personally. I bid her goodnight and we went on our separate ways.

Reflecting on this mini-debate the next day, I allowed for the possibility that this person thought I was playing the victim, complaining about my lot when there are so many worse off folk. If this assumption is correct, then I suppose she was just trying to nip my ingratitude in the bud with a blanket of morality. Perhaps. Then again, this philosophy has been doled out to me before when I have tried to speak my truth. And, ironically enough, usually by people who earn oodles more money than I. Read into that what you may.

Regardless, the issue deserves a second glance: is all work honourable?

I remember a conversation I heard when I was working in a drop-in for street-entrenched folk in the Downtown Eastside. For the full dialogue click here but basically it was two men complaining about a man who did nothing, not even steal, while his lady friend worked the streets all night. The essence was that he wasn’t being honourable… he wasn’t paying his way. For these two men, at least, we could surmise that any kind of work is noble.

But I am not convinced and neither, I imagine, would the people being robbed.

Nevertheless, let us consider a more service related job such as physician. Doctoring is a fine profession, an honourable one even, until, that is, the good doctor stops caring or learning or even listening to his or her patients. Not so honourable anymore.

We could also look at creative work whether it be writing, painting or baking bread. Same thing, not so honourable unless the person behind it is. One has only to think of hate literature or "Twinkies" to prove my point

As a cashier in a building supply store, I sell environmentally damaging goods including paint, thinners, pressure treated wood, insulation, pesticides, cleaners and all sorts of plastics, hard and soft. And this doesn’t even include all the trees cut down to fill our lumber yard. As part of a business encouraging people to slowly wreck havoc on the earth, I am rarely proud of it. Then again, this place of employment also provides a service: people need these products, or at least many of them, to build and maintain homes, schools, and hospitals. So, which is it?  Honourable or  dishonourable?

Neither, really.

Every career choice and job has its shadows. Nothing is purely good or evil. Primo Levi, a Jewish concentration camp survivor, implied this when he spoke of the people who, while working for the Nazis, tried to make prison life somewhat, if one could even call it such, tolerable. Honorable people in an intolerable situation? Honour within complicity? Hypocrisy? One cannot judge these moments unless they have experienced it. Thankfully, I have not but I still maintain that it always comes back to the person behind the work fa├žade. I would argue that even a thief can be honourable if they only steal what they (or their kids) need to survive and then only from those that can afford it. 

The cash box I operate a couple times a week, the computer where I write every day, and the massage table where I do therapy are only props on the stage where I conduct life. Who I am behind these props is everything. If I am present and compassionate to myself and others;  if my heart is open to connection no matter how temporary; and if I am doing my best to be in service to humanity even if comes out somewhat mediocre, then it is I that is being honourable regardless of my work.

I invite your thoughts ... 

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  1. I really enjoyed this post! I agree that (most) work is inherently honorable, but I also agree that intent is everything, and work done with a loving heart is a powerful force. I also think that our judgement about different types of work is hugely problematic. Everyone's work should be respected, from the burger flipper to the house cleaner to the doctor who sets your bone when you break an arm. The lack of respect toward service work is a travesty.

    1. Thanks Ms Typist! Perhaps if we did go into work feeling it was inherently honourable... many of us would step up to the plate and act honourably within it... something to think about.