"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Work As The Epicenter Of Life–Ask A Burger Flipper

Arthur C. Brooks writing in the New York Times (6.14.14) feels that is important to demonstrate to his son the essential and absolute value of work – that it is “the epicenter of a good life”.  He goes on to cite classical texts:

All the wisdom of the sages reinforces this truth. As the Buddha lay dying after a 45-year career seeking and teaching the way to true consciousness, it is believed that his last words were “appamadena sampadetha,” which means “Strive diligently,” or, “Work consciously.” Our labor should be an agreeable path to spiritual enlightenment.

I am not sure exactly what work Mr. Brooks is referring to, although I suspect that he means jobs like his – President of The American Enterprise Institute, writer, and columnist – and not the burger flippers at McDonalds, the scullery maids cleaning toilets on Park Avenue, or the trailer moms pulling late night shifts at a 24-hr. Walmart. 

Many if not most Americans have shit jobs they take only for the money.  They double-duty doing nails and waitressing.  They take tolls on the Jersey Turnpike. They sell cheap pants at K-Mart. They kill chickens for Frank Perdue.

There is no spiritual enlightenment in the aisles of Kroger’s, washing dishes at Dot’s Kitchen, working the metal press at Billup Tool & Die, or hauling frozen meat for Sysco. There is nothing more to these jobs than a paycheck, good benefits, and a company picnic.  

Vocation is crucial to leading a satisfying life. Who teaches this truth to children? Many traditions emphasize the role of fathers. Jesus defended himself to the Pharisees for working on the Sabbath by saying, “my Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.”

This is like the Chairman of Goldman Sachs, pulling down nine figures in his 50th floor Wall Street aerie, telling a cabbie that they both work for a living.  Both Mr. Goldman and Jesus have great jobs.  Yes, Jesus suffered, but knew that soon enough he would rule an unparalleled spiritual empire alongside his father.  While on earth Jesus told his followers that they should work hard, toil in the vineyards, and put up with Romans, Turks, and Syrians. 

Jesus made a special point of this when he was tempted by the Devil in the desert.  Satan’s third temptation was the most interesting of the three.  He took Jesus to a high mountain and, waving his arm across the horizon, told him that all the kingdoms of the world and wealth, power, and luxury would be his “if you bow down and worship me”. 

Jesus would have none of it, eschewing temporal gain, preferring to work with lepers, prostitutes, and the fallen.  He was an apprentice who would eventually join his father’s really big company and have it all.

As for the street cleaners and fishmongers of Jerusalem, he said, “Work hard, be good, do what you’re told, and rewards will come in due time”.

Work is necessary for survival, and those of us fortunate enough to have had a good education, involved parents, modest wealth, and a safe and supportive environment, are likely to have jobs which are personally rewarding as well as productive.  I never considered what I did ‘working for a living’ because I got to travel the world on a big expense account, have adventures, eat great food, stay at five-star hotels, and find attractive company. Yes, I fulfilled the terms of my contract and excelled at the work I did; but it was easy work, requiring some political savvy, cultural perception, a silver tongue, and a quick pen.  It was nothing like laying tar in the summer.

In my long life I have had only two real jobs.  The first was when I sold cheap suits at Korvette’s in Bayonne.  I needed the money so I moonlighted at night.  It was brutal – eight hours in a fluorescent bulb purgatory of rayon, plastic shoes, and endless airless aisles of junk flogged mercilessly by salesmen in the business to make money off of goombas from Down Neck or government workers from Jersey City. 

My other real job was a New York cabbie.  I worked the night shift, first running Midtown businessmen out to LaGuardia, then picking up the early dinner crowd, then the theatre crowd, and eventually the dopers, hookers, and pimps downtown.  My back ached, my arms ached, my head ached, and I made a pittance with tips.

My children are as fortunate as I was, so work is a pleasure, not a travail.  They think, create, innovate, and produce; which is about as good as it gets for a nine-to-five. Work per se is not the issue; but the type of work. If you’re lucky and smart, you can get paid for what you would do anyway.

For the other ninety-nine percent of Americans who work shit jobs on night shifts, labor under Simon Legree bosses and foremen, and take home chicken feed, no such luck.  There will be no spiritual epiphanies, no enlightenment, no smiles of satisfaction.  Work is only about quittin’ time, a few Buds, chicken wings, and a buzzed sleep in the trailer.

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