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I recently went back to work after being made redundant in December and working online for almost two years previous to that. I must say, it has been a shock to the system to be back in a workplace with three-dimensional human beings. It has also made me reflect on the place of work in our lives and the pace at which we are expected to work in the culture and place where I live.
In the Baha’i Faith, work is seen as a form of worship. Well to clarify, work has the potential to become worship if it is done in a certain way:
Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship.Abdu’l-Baha 1
These are inspiring words, but I think we have to be careful that we don’t turn them into a catchphrase we use to legitimize our preoccupation with work. On the one hand, the Baha’i Writings stress the importance and value of work. But on the other hand, Abdu’l-Baha also says that there is value in working less:
That all mankind might have opportunity, it was necessary to shorten the hours of labour so that the work of the world could be completed without such demand of strain and effort, and all human beings would have leisure to think and develop individual capacity…
Soon there will be a six hour day, a five hour, a three hour day, even less than that, and the worker must be paid more for this management of machines, than he ever received for the exercise of his two hands alone.Abdu’l-Baha 2
Like all things, it seems to me to be a matter of balance and moderation. As Baha’u’llah says:
Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence.Baha’u’llah 3
One philosophy that aligns with this is Aristotle’s notion of the golden mean. He saw that virtue lies in the balance between two polarized vices e.g. confidence is a virtue but too much confidence is arrogance and not enough is insecurity, neither of which are virtuous.
The same could be said about work. Working too much is not good. It is an unhealthy obsession with work–workaholism–that can lead to burnout, depression, as well as family and self-neglect. On the other hand, not working at all when we are able to deprives us of the opportunity of contribute to society and take care of ourselves and our family. So, I think the ideal lies somewhere in between: working but not working too much. But how much work is enough work and how much is too much? I think this cannot be clearly defined. The number of hours will vary from person to person. This may depend on two things.
The first is earning enough money to provide for oneself and family. Does this mean bare essentials or luxuries as well? Again I think it depends on the individual. We need to distinguish between our wants and needs, but Baha’u’llah also says we can enjoy the things of the world as long as they do not stand between us and God. So, I guess we have to ask ourselves: Do I have enough time after work to spend with my family? Does my job enable me to meaningfully contribute to the world? Do I earn enough money to provide for myself and others?
The other thing that needs to be considered is how much work we as individuals can cope with physically and mentally. There are only so many bricks a bricklayer can carry each day before his or her back gives out. Likewise, there is only so much we can psychologically tolerate at our workplaces before we crack.
And then when we are at work, we also need this sense of balance. Baha’u’llah counsels us to aim for excellence in all things. This is a noble idea, one that I think we should bring to our work. Striving for excellence in our job can also help us gain more meaning from it because we are not just concerned with getting things done and getting paid but are also concentrated on doing a good job.
I think it is important to distinguish between excellence and perfection. While we can achieve excellence, we cannot achieve perfection because perfection is not possible in this universe. Here again, we can see polarities: perfectionism and carelessness. The perfectionist wants everything to be perfect and when it isn’t, and it never is, they can get very upset, myself included. On the other hand, the careless person cares very little about the quality of what they do. They never feel disappointed because their expectations are so low. So, I think the golden mean is to aim towards excellence but to accept our limitations, and meet our mistakes and others’ with love.
Trying to find the balance in the quantity and quality of my work is a constant challenge. When I’m at home I might remember there is something I forgot to do at work. But I have to remind myself that I have other obligations at home that I need to attend to, resting and relaxation being one. So instead of working at home, which on the surface seems like the noble thing for everyone to do, I might send myself a quick email of the things I need to do when I get back to the office. Also, when I’ve got multiple tasks at work that demand my attention, I make sure I prioritize which things I do first and how much time I devote to each task. I also try to accept that I will not do everything perfectly; I will make mistakes. I am only human, after all.
- Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 83
- Abdu’l-Baha, as reported by Mary Hanford Ford in Star of the West, Volume 10, pp. 106-107
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 216
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