What do you do for a living?

What do you do for a living?

Sometimes I have been tempted to respond, as the late New York Times columnist David Carr once quipped, “I write emails.”

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Like many office workers of one stripe or another, much of my day is spent sending messages on various digital platforms. For a long time it was email, and my to-do list was largely dictated by how many messages in my inbox I had read or responded to.

I still write a lot of email, but now I also communicate on Slack, an internal communications tool, and on social media. Occasionally I have to remind myself that my workday is not over when I have made my way through my inbox or my Slack queue. There are still articles to edit, columns to write, actual conversations to be had.

I marvel sometimes at how different my workday is from my father’s. My father and grandfather were both restaurant owners, and most of their days were spent talking to people face to face, whether it was their employees or the customers who walked through the door. I have reached a point where I consider it a nuisance to answer the telephone.

Ted Nunez’s article in this issue (“Life Without Work,” p. 15) reminds us that we all find value in work, whether it is the mechanical or the digital kind. “How we spend our time is a profound ethical question,” Mr. Nunez writes. But what will happen when the tools that we now use to make our work easier wind up taking over our work altogether? Even the work of journalists like myself is not immune. As Mr. Nunez points out, computer programs can now write a summary of a ball game. “Moving beyond live-to-work habits may be the most difficult challenge of all, given the cultural hold of the work ethic,” he writes.

But would we want to move beyond these habits, even if we could? If we could engineer a life that made work unnecessary, would we want to live that way? We all need time for family and leisure activities, especially when the demands of work are creeping into every corner of our lives. But people yearn for satisfying work too, and in the decades ahead there may not be enough jobs to meet these needs.

I had occasion to reflect on what work means, and how I find value in my own day-to-day activities, when I stayed home for two months with our family’s new baby boy. It was a blessed experience, one that I will be forever grateful for. But it was also a challenging one at times that tested my instincts about what it means to be a productive member of society.

Like any new parent, I quickly learned that I had to surrender to my son’s rhythms. When he was hungry, I had to abandon everything I was doing and feed him. As I held his bottle and supported his head, both my hands were occupied; I couldn’t check my phone. It was a wonderful reminder that nothing is more important than the needs of those closest to you.

But those lessons could be fleeting. I still found myself looking forward to the times I had to myself, so I could empty the dishwasher, make the bed or, yes, send an email. Perhaps this is more of a male trait, the need to check off boxes and move on to the next task, but it is not exclusive to men. In one way or another, we all yearn for the sense of satisfaction that a job well done affords.

Pope Francis, the son of economic turmoil (see “Tyrants and Technocrats,” in this issue), somehow manages to live a life that combines industry with quiet attention. Consider how he looks at people, the time he spends with them. And then consider how much he travels and the vast program of his pontificate. This is a man of prayer and diligent work.

May we all be so inspired, and so lucky.

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William Rydberg
2 years 3 months ago
Brings to mind the story of the three bricklayers and the question "what are you building?", a story that everybody has heard at least a dozen times. The best answer IMHO is "I am building a Cathedral". Bring out the third bricklayer! in Christ, Have a good Lent...
Bruce Snowden
2 years 3 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, I've heard that bricklayer story before, the three bricklayers giving a different account to the question, What are you doing?" #1 says angrily, "I'm trying to move these damn bricks!" .#2 sweaty and also angry says, "None of your G-d damned business!" #3 also sweaty but joyful and singing responds, "I'm building a Cathedral! " Good story showing that ATTITUDE makes the difference in whatever work one does. Do it for God the most mundane becomes a spiritual work of art. One example comes to mind about the late Cardinal John O'Connor. He used to leave his residence late at night with a resident priest and go to a hospital where victims of Aids were treated. Once there he would begin doing humble tasks, like emptying bed pans! ATTITUDE does make a difference. This hooks in, I think, to Mr. Reidy's message, synthesized I think in the final line talking about Pope Francis, calling him "a man of prayer and diligent work" or as the monastic dictum puts it, "Ora et labora." None of this would be worth "a bucket of spit" quoting President Coolidge's opinion of the Vice Presidency of his day, without a proper ATTITUDE. That;s the most important asset. Me too - IMHO!
Sandi Sinor
2 years 3 months ago
Studies show that most women who work outside the home would do so even without the economic benefits of two incomes. They are not really so different from men, Mr. Reidy, in wanting to follow their personal interests and use their particular gifts and talents outside the home. It is good for the family and for society that increasing numbers of men are taking on more parenting and home-making roles. Some young couples have learned that it is the father who is more comfortable with full-time parenting and home-making than the mother. But most young couples seem to wish to share more equally in all of the roles - homemaking, parenting, and financial support of the family. Thankfully, stereotyped gender roles are gradually becoming a relic of the past.
Tim Reidy
2 years 2 months ago

I agree with you here, Ms. Sinor. My point—not as a precise as it could have been, perhaps—is that a "task-oriented" mentality is sometimes seen as a male trait. I am well aware of the gifts and benefits that both men and women exercise outside the home. The subject of this column was, in a way, an acknowledgment of that reality. 

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