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Serving Humanity on the Job

November 6, 2014, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by
Serving Humanity on the Job

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.


Footnotes & Citations
  1. Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 1[]
Posted by

Greg Hodges

Greg Hodges and his wife Mae live in Alfred, Maine, USA and work in organic agriculture. He has been a Baha'i for nine years and an enthusiast for philosophy and social theory for ten.

Discussion 9 Comments

GREAT article Greg and perhaps we could organize an “ebbf meaningful hangout” inviting you to introduce and spark some ideas to a global ebbf audience?

For your info http://ebbf.org is a global community of people who explore how to apply Baha’i Principles in the workplace. Mindful individuals who have this passion, reflected very well in your article, to create more meaningful, purposeful and successful workplaces.
Would you be interested?

Daniel Truran (November 11, 2014 at 10:18 AM)

A hangout would be great. My wife and I would be very interested to hear from people with more experience at applying Baha’i principles to business practice. Our farm is at a very early stage of development.

Greg Hodges (November 11, 2014 at 2:43 PM)

Sounds great Greg, we are definitely looking for any management guru, rather individuals like yourself asking the right questions and allowing a rich exchange of ideas.

Could you offer a couple of dates and times in the second part of November that could work for you and your wife? Ideally in your morning to early afternoon to allow people living in Europe and hopefully part of Asia to also take part if they want?

I am then very happy to help with the logistics of promoting and organising the “ebbf meaningful conversations” google hangout.

Daniel Truran (November 11, 2014 at 3:59 PM)

Excellent story, Greg, as you describe what service isn’t and what it can be. You’ve described what the ideal looks like in life which we need to be able to envision. Still we need some transition pieces–translational–how does someone who is struggling (few options) or even working in jobs that hurt others but helps them care for their family–move towards something different? Beyond nonprofit work or social work which are kind of natural “service” type work. Can commercial businesses today operate with a genuine moral compass and be successful? I know Bahá’ís who’ve tried and failed. The culture of business is so corrupt and has been for a long, long time. Winner take all and you lose because you deserve to lose. Small business to big business. Same concept. So how do we as Bahá’ís operate in this ongoing vicious business culture in ways that advance humanity spiritually? I guess we’re looking for applied methods…and you’ve offered a start in this story as you talk about opportunities. Likely it is about moderation–what is enough–enough to live on and enough profit-taking for businesses, and then how do we become successful examples. Thank you again for your story.

Bobbie Kolehouse (November 11, 2014 at 10:35 AM)

Good points Bobbie,
good news is that there is a growing number of people who are applying Baha’i Principles in their workplaces and are making a positive impact there too. I don’t see any gurus but I see small and big coherent actions that are producing good outcomes.
Hope we can hear of more and more personal.
Here you can find just a few stories to hopefully inspire others to take personal initiative and then share their learnings : http://ebbf.org/newsroom-overview/

Daniel Truran (November 11, 2014 at 3:56 PM)

Great post, and just at the right time. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Corinne (November 11, 2014 at 7:42 PM)

The author of this article, Greg Hodges and his wife Mae have offered to kick off a google hangout on Thursday 20th November, where they will share how they went about selecting the values that will sustain their new enterprise and where we will then open the floor to hear of more ideas and questions on:

As you set up an enterprise, what is the process to decide which values will sustain it?

More information at the google hangout here, organized by ebbf: https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/111065480231453782222/events/cf6lf0q0nm3qvdckqckv35oopn8

daniel truran (November 11, 2014 at 6:37 PM)

I would so appreciate it if employers would provide prayer facilities in factories/offices etc.

ian digby (November 11, 2014 at 8:19 AM)

Another comment if I may: This is a superb article IMHO. A really useful contribution to a debate that should be far more prominent than it is. Thank you truly.

ian digby (November 11, 2014 at 8:29 AM)

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