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Work is no fun. It’s an almost iron law of modern life. So what should we do about it? The easy answer is “do what you love.” But many of us can testify from our own experience that life isn’t like that. Even when a job involves something a person really enjoys, the end of the workday can’t come soon enough. The excitement wears off. Things that might have once seemed cool and interesting can become tedious and stressful. Work takes up a huge proportion of our time on this earth. So its very dispiriting to see how often and how easily it can detract from attaining a sense of meaning or high purpose in life. We need ways to make it more uplifting.
I was thinking about this recently while reading The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement published in 1995 by the Baha’i International Community and prepared at the request of the Universal House of Justice. The document imparts “a vision of human prosperity in the fullest sense of the term—an awakening to the possibilities of the spiritual and material well-being now brought within grasp.” It discusses a number of themes relevant to the future of humanity and the principles that should inform the life of society. One section on work and employment caught my eye. I think a few points it raises about the imagined purpose of work are worth further exploration.
In most of contemporary thinking, the concept of work has been largely reduced to that of gainful employment aimed at acquiring the means for the consumption of available goods. The system is circular: acquisition and consumption resulting in the maintenance and expansion of the production of goods and, in consequence, in supporting paid employment. Taken individually, all of these activities are essential to the well-being of society. The inadequacy of the overall conception, however, can be read in both the apathy that social commentators discern among large numbers of the employed in every land and the demoralization of the growing armies of the unemployed.The Prosperity of Humankind, A Statement by the Bahá’í International Community
Any kind of work can be seen from two sides: the usefulness of what the worker produces and the monetary value of the worker’s pay. Typically, employment is evaluated in light of the second condition; as a way to earn a living, make ends meet, or to get rich. The usefulness of that work to society, though, is too often set aside as irrelevant to how or why people engage in work. For these reasons the authors indicate the need for a new work ethic based on a spiritual attitude towards everyone who benefits from that work.
To the extent that work is consciously undertaken in a spirit of service to humanity, Baha’u’llah says, it is a form of prayer, a means of worshiping God. Every individual has the capacity to see himself or herself in this light, and it is to this inalienable capacity of the self that development strategy must appeal, whatever the nature of the plans being pursued, whatever the rewards they promise.The Prosperity of Humankind, A Statement by the Bahá’í International Community
“Service to humanity” is an expression often used to describe unpaid volunteer activities. But here the authors extend its usage even into the domain of paid labor. Being the cause of the happiness and well-being of others can certainly be a source of great joy. Abdu’l-Baha even says of it that “there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight.” 1 So if paid labor can be experienced in that way, then it would certainly contribute to rather than detract from attaining a sense of meaning and high purpose in one’s life.
But before we tell the disaffected workers of the world to “just think of it as service,” we also need to think about how the general character of work needs to be structured for it to be spiritually uplifting.
First, the result of one’s work should be for the benefit of society. That’s true in any case. But it’s especially true if we aspire to perform it in a spirit of service to humanity. Sometimes what we do on the job is meaningless, destructive of the environment or causes more suffering in the world than it does happiness. If it’s difficult to see any purpose to one’s work besides receiving a paycheck or making somebody else rich, then envisioning it as service to humanity is simply delusional. Imagining work as service should be a realistic assessment of what the work actually accomplishes. So if the work ethic is going to change, the actual work needs to change with it. In this light, restructuring the economy around service to the common good rather than around selfish advantage would open clear opportunities for spiritual growth.
Second, we should be mindful that not all service is good for society or for the people performing it. Not all service is voluntary. Historically it has been forced on people because of their race, gender, class, national origin, or criminal record. Sometimes this is by threats of violence, other times by sheer economic necessity. And participation in the “service sector,” working in jobs like food preparation or retail can hardly be considered uplifting. Workers in such jobs are often forced to express positive emotions towards clients and customers regardless of how they actually feel, which can be very degrading. Putting others’ needs before one’s own is an aspect of spiritually enlightened service. But since the centuries-long oppression of one group by another is so deeply rooted in workplace relationships, it is essential that spirituality not become a way to happily accept one’s own exploitation. In order for service to humanity to provide meaning and high purpose to our work, we need to think about how what we do on the job can be further characterized by dignity, equality, and mutual benefit.
In conclusion, I think when the social conditions are right, work can be productively seen as a space for service to humanity and an authentic means of worshipping God. In addition to developing our inner selves, it’s also important to think about how we can contribute to improvements in the economic culture of our society. What actions and behavior that implies will vary for each of us depending on individual circumstances.
But I think a few themes give an initial sense of what a service-oriented workplace and workforce would look like.
1. The result of the work improves the lives of others.
2. The work facilitates the workers’ spontaneous expression of qualities of the soul that spring from the love of God: joy, compassion, truthfulness, forgiveness, wisdom, et al.
3. The motivation to serve inspires workers to go where their love and intelligence guide them, improve work processes, and take initiative to meet unmet needs in the community.
4. Decisions are taken in consultation with those who will implement them and, if possible, with those who stand to benefit.
Taken together, I think these are a few guiding lines for a new spiritually empowering work ethic, rooted in the desire to serve humanity.
- Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 1
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