The first of May is International Workers’ Day and Labor Day in many countries around the world. In this reflection, Plough contributor and Bruderhof member Justin Peters (1950-2004) explores our love-hate relationship with our work.
We love and hate work. We need to work to stay alive. But our work demeans us, and obstructs our happiness. We fight through rush hour traffic, play the politics of our office, sweat out the hours on the construction site, and burn our lives away doing what we don’t want to do but have to.
My father was writing and directing movies for the National Film Board of Canada in 1953 when he started to think more about this. A professor at McGill University had conducted a study of a washing machine assembly plant in New York State. The plant owner installed an assembly conveyor to set (and hasten) the cadence of the assembly process, and thus cut assembly costs. The professor from McGill heard about this and requested the owner’s permission to study the impact of the conveyor on the lives of the workers. The owner was an open-minded person and permitted the study.
Dad read it and saw the skeleton of a movie. So he, too, contacted the plant owner. “Sure,” the man said, “we’re only running two shifts. The plant is yours from 10 till 6 every night. Bring in your actors.”
This was at the height of the Red Scare, and Dad was an avowed socialist. Actors were hired, the movie was shot, the sound track was recorded, and the movie, Men at Work, approached completion. Then one day Dad was called to a meeting with top management. “Peters, you need to start looking for a job...”
Dad never bothered to find out what became of Men at Work. Decades later, in the last months of his life, he surmised that the Film Board probably released it, but only after fundamentally tweaking its message. Recently I bought a copy of it from the Film Board’s archives, and watching it, I think that’s what happened. But the tweak seems to have been limited to the last two minutes, in which an equivocal, feel-good ending is tacked clumsily onto Dad’s hard-hitting story.
In the movie, Art Banks is a conscientious worker, proud of the excellent washing machines the Trojan Company produces. But then comes the conveyor. Everything is quantified. Suddenly, all that matters is speed. Workers who don’t give a damn are now the successful ones. Hard words fly, then fists. Dad’s part of the movie ends – as Art Banks’ world falls to pieces – with questions but no answers.
What each of us really needs in order to find satisfaction in our work is to be used – fully and completely – for a higher purpose than profit.
Dad’s world also fell to pieces, but the pieces then fell back together, a different way. A friend of my parents attended a meeting of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Seattle where two visitors spoke about a place where people worked with a common purpose, where there was no private property, where “labor” and “management” were one and the same.
My parents spent the next year arranging to visit the Bruderhof in England or Paraguay (there was then no branch in the U.S.). Then the Woodcrest Bruderhof was founded in Rifton, NY, and my parents were among the first guests. Within six months they moved there with three small children, including me. A couple of years later, they had become lifetime members. Dad looked back at Men at Work. Now he himself was a factory worker, in the Bruderhof’s Community Playthings woodshop. In 1956, he wrote:
Art Banks and the others would certainly not have told us that working at Trojan was the highest purpose for which their lives could be lived. But they are affirming that by continuing to use up their years in that way. Their action speaks louder than any words, as they stand serving the conveyor…
You would not find the organization of the Bruderhof remarkable – except as it reflects an acceptance of people as they are with their weaknesses, along with a certainty that each can find outside himself a power for good which will give his life purpose. The organization itself would strike you as loose and informal, because we have confidence not in organization, but only in the Spirit which unites us. At work I can trust others to know better than I do what is the proper occupation for me.
What about my role as an artist? I’m not making any films these days and I have no idea whether I shall ever be asked to. But life here is full and complete. It’s creative – it draws heavily on whatever inspiration is in us. I shall be called upon to live creatively as an artist in the years ahead, although probably not as an artist in the narrower sense of the term.
Like Art Banks, what each of us really needs in order to find satisfaction in our work is to be used – fully and completely – for a higher purpose than profit. Dad must have got the point across to us kids. In 1966, my sister Rilla wrote:
The operator stands with boots well-braced
Upon the undulating track, swirled round
But left untouched by the neon-lighted sound
Of screamed delight. Impassive-faced,
His eyes remote and cool, he gazes at a waste
Where no one lives but him. When I’ve not found
A seat, he asks, Hey what’s the matter – bound
To get on, are ya? In his mouth no taste
Of unkind words or kind; stale smoke is there.
Like it he drifts – a young man in his prime.
His back and hands and head, all strong, could share
In loving work with brothers. He doesn’t care
To hear the call we all hear once – but time
Is short. Oh please do more than stare!
In those years, others were thinking about work and human life. Studs Terkel came out with his great book Working in 1972, consisting of interviews with about 100 workers across the US. Some excerpts:
The function of work [is] at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize his faculties; to enable him to overcome ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth goods and services.
Jean Stanley, a cosmetics salesperson: “You would have liked to do something more vital, something you felt was making a contribution.”
Fred Roman, an auditor: “It’s not a very exciting business. You tell people you’re an accountant – they don’t quite know what to say. What can you say? I could say, ‘Wow, I saw this company yesterday and their balance sheet, wow!’ (Slowly, emphasizing each word) There just isn’t much to talk about.”
Ray Wax, a stock broker: “Oh, I’ll continue to cope. I’ll continue with my personal disillusionment. (Laughs.) Oh, I’d like one morning to wake up and go to some work that gave me joy…”
Steve Carmichael, a government bureaucrat: “The most frustrating thing for me is to know that what I’m doing does not have a positive impact on others. I don’t see this work as meaning anything.”
Bill Talcott, a community organizer: “I’m one of the few people in life who was lucky enough to find out what he really wanted to do. I’m just havin’ a ball, the time of my life. I feel sorry for all these people I run across all the time who aren’t doing what they want to do. Their lives are hell. You’ve got one life. You’ve got, say, sixty-five years. How on earth can you blow forty-five years of that doing something you hate?”
Nick Lindsay, a carpenter: “But every once in a while, there’s stuff that comes in on you. All of a sudden, something falls into place. Suppose you’re driving an eight-penny nail into this siding. Your whole universe is rolled into the head of that nail. Each lick is sufficient to justify your life…”
Nora Watson, an editor: “Most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
A year later, E. F. Schumacher wrote in Small is Beautiful:
The modern economist has been brought up to consider “labor” or work as little more than a necessary evil. ... From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment. The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the work load” is a good thing.
In a later chapter, Schumacher envisions a more positive (and productive) attitude toward work:
The function of work [is] at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless … [It] is mainly interested in liberation. …The keynote is therefore simplicity and nonviolence. From the economist’s point of view, the marvel of this way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern – amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results.
I got the point, too. In 1974, I joined the Bruderhof. Here I’m finding that work is neither irrelevant nor burdensome to my soul. It is part of the soul’s fulfillment.
I’m like Bill Talcott – I’m having a ball. Life for me is work and purpose all rolled together. Sharing everything – goals, goods, hopes, and purpose – with the people you work with frees you. You don’t degrade yourself politicking. You don’t use up your years in a conflict between your work and your soul.
I’ve done everything from loading semi-trailers and stacking wood at a rip saw to designing products and fixing sewing machines. It doesn’t matter what the day’s task is, it only matters that it’s part of the purpose. The purpose is to demonstrate that life and work can be purpose-filled for everyone – all seven billion of us. If my day’s work demonstrates this new way, it’s a day well spent.
Now it’s your turn. Leave us a comment below to tell us how you feel about your work.