Making work a garden, not a nightmare

(Paul Lachine)

Earth and Spirit

Not long ago, as I recalled bygone Labor Days, I dreamed this nightmare. Due to an acute shortage of folks to do service jobs because of rising anti-immigrant fervor, a new technology was sweeping the country. If the recently deceased were hooked up to car battery jumper cables, you could get another few weeks out of them; you just had to jolt them every eight hours.

Colleagues and I were on our way back from the city morgue with a couple of revived stiffs twitching in the back seat, anxious in a kind of ghastly way to do our mail hauling and filing.

When I woke up, my skin crawling, I had to go to work.

Work! Our jobs! Mercy! Look over your resumé -- and see highs, lows and in-betweens. By far, my worst was a mercifully brief stint as a file clerk for an insurance company. Let’s call it CosmoDemonic Mutual, because that’s what it was: hollow-eyed drudgery and soul-squelching tedium punctuated by episodes of cruel heartlessness, especially to the women who worked there. If that dream technology were real, CosmoD would have jumper-cabled up a vast crew of working stiffs. I had many short careers -- as store detective, roofer, framing carpenter, police desk sergeant, stagehand, security guard, lathe operator in a sledgehammer handle factory, receptionist in a homeless shelter, mail carrier. All of these jobs taught me about work.

As we all know well, work has its ups and downs -- dealing with difficult people, striving hard not to be a difficult person in turn, negotiating the reefs, currents and undertows that come with the usually pyramidal territory. In fact, our jobs can be as arduous, harrowing, fraught with hardship and danger, and as challenging and triumphant as any hero’s journey. Sometimes we drop into bed as wrung-out and travel-weary as any Odysseus or Leopold Bloom.

In our own right, we have eluded sirens’ voices, dodged the lotus eaters, tricked the drooling Cyclops, navigated past clashing rocks, entered the cave of winds and threaded arrows through impossible hoops with unbendable bows.

As Studs Terkel wrote: “Work is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is above all about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.”

Work is both our joy and desolation; it can be a blessing or a curse, sometimes both at once. Now everything we need to live is tied to jobs: groceries, mortgage payment, health insurance, self-esteem, refuge from the dread ravages of idleness. This greatly ups the ante; it makes cowards of the bravest.

Lack of work, in turn, can be economically and spiritually devastating. Too much work can wear us down to a glassy-eyed frazzle.

Our workplaces are certainly arenas for our spirituality. Any fool can sprout a halo in a retreat house or wilderness hideout. Our spiritual fitness is daily put to the test, even strained to the limit, at work. The bottom line? Our work turf, however cluttered or discombobulated, is holy ground.

In the Gospels, when confronted with the thorniest social problems of his day, Jesus liked to step back and take the broadest possible point of view in order to break through to solutions. We might try this, too.

Take, for example, the connection between our work and the origin and nature of the whole universe. If the universe itself is seen as a machine, then machine-work best mirrors its workings. If, for example, the worker is just a part of a machine, then he or she can be treated as such. But if the world is seen as a living entity, which more and more we are coming to do, then work too needs to be seen as organic. It springs from an inner seed of mystery and creativity. It must be involved in growth that is world or community nurturing. Interconnectedness, not the machine or pyramid, is the key model; no single part is less or more important than another.

“Authentic work,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas eight centuries ago, “connects us to the creative habits of the universe.”

Creative innovations in work are afoot now, such as more workplace democracy, flex time, shorter work weeks, cooperative ownership of workplaces, a minimum and maximum wage, employee stock option plans, consensus decision-making, together with simpler living, cohousing, putting monetary value on helping one another and on cleaning up our world, giving parents more time with children.

A good model for better workplaces are the Mondragón cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, developed by a priest, José Arizmendiarrieta, just after the devastation of the Spanish Civil War. These cooperatives -- they manufacture domestic appliances -- were built upon a humanist concept of business, interrelated by a philosophy of participation, solidarity and a shared business culture. Values like democratic organization, the sovereignty of labor, the instrumental and subordinate nature of capital, participatory management, payment solidarity, intercooperation, social transformation, and worker education are taken seriously.

Like the Mondragón employees, we can make work more of a garden, less of a nightmare.

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