By Sharon Carnahan

Working It Out: Putting Work in Its Proper Place

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.  (Ecclesiastes 9:10 NASB)

The people I love the best
jump into work head first 

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals 

bouncing like half submerged balls.  Marge Piercy, "To be of use"                    

By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. (Genesis 2:2 NASB)
 

Yesterday, I was tired. God, I was so tired and fed up with work. Squabbles, self-centered shirking, decisions made by cronies instead of qualified people, endless stacks of papers to grade, entitled students, and the drudgery of doing the same thing for the twentieth year. But rest? Admit defeat and go home? No way.

In my family, there was really only one acceptable way to cope with worry, failure, or tragedy: work. Work harder, smarter, better. Try, try again. Get there earlier, read it faster, practice more than the opposition. Be frugal. Stay late. Leave a clean desk at the end of every day.ified people, endless stacks of papers to grade, entitled students, and the drudgery of doing the same thing for the twentieth year. But rest? Admit defeat and go home? No way.

 

In my family, there was really only one acceptable way to cope with worry, failure, or tragedy: work. Work harder, smarter, better. Try, try again. Get there earlier, read it faster, practice more than the opposition. Be frugal. Stay late. Leave a clean desk at the end of every day.

My grandmother had the habit of perpetual motion. She worked to forget the deaths of those she loved, and to make a better life for her daughter and granddaughters. From the rising of the sun to her evening collapse on her narrow single bed, she worked.

I can still see my Gram at “leisure,” watching As the World Turns — while simultaneously ironing shirts, handkerchiefs, undershorts, and even towels. Once, when I was in elementary school, she was in a wheelchair for a few weeks following surgery. She rigged a board across the arms so she could chop vegetables in her lap, and emptied the dishwasher by filling the board, wheeling herself across the room, transferring dishes to countertops, then starting over again.

When Gram was in her seventies, the family left on vacation, leaving her alone for a week. While we were gone, she stripped and varnished the wood floors in two rooms. With Gram’s help, our shelves were filled with jams and pickles, and whatever Daddy shot showed up in the crockpot. In my third grade year, she made 100 unique open-faced Danish sandwiches for my International Day at school; when I was in fifth grade, she sewed dozens of tiny uniforms for International Girl Scout dolls. I learned to work from her.

Her work though was insufficient anodyne; work never is enough to hide, or kill, all pain and loss. In Gram's later years, the liquor delivery boy became a frequent visitor to our house, and Gram’s work had to be re-done later by her sober grandchildren. But still, she worked.


I love people who work hard. I have an affinity, an appreciation, for the laborers who surround me. Kimi, the single Vietnamese woman who cleans my building before dawn; Miley, a married Christian air-conditioning supervisor for 25 years, and the college’s unofficial chaplain; Shane, a plumber who stammers out great jokes while he keeps a small city’s worth of irrigation going.



Yet I try to remember that work was never meant to be my first priority.

 Work is the joyful expression of the gifts God’s given me — to teach, to bake, to read stories to children, and to write. Work puts food on the table and gas in the tank, and there is no such thing as work that is beneath me. Work serves God, others, and my soul. I love to work, most days. Work is good.

 But my first task — my real work, you might say — is to glorify God, and enjoy him, and his creation. The famous passage, known to all good children of the Reformed tradition from the Westminster Catechism, is this:

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

And so, I did it. I left work early yesterday, soul-sick and disenchanted. I then cleaned my house, made a hot dinner, watched a little humorous TV with my son, and washed the dog. I read Scripture, watched the sunset, and thanked God for all the blessings I could list. And today, I’m better for the short sabbatical, and ready to enjoy God — and my job — again.

About the Author

Sharon Carnahan is Professor of Psychology and Cornell Professor of Service at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where she also directs a laboratory preschool.  A graduate of Hope College, UNC Chapel Hill, and the Proctor Insititute on Child Advocacy Ministry (Children's Defense Fund), Dr. Carnahan is a developmental psychologist who teaches child and adolescent development, child assessment and developmental screening, cross-cultural child psychology, and the psychology of religious experiences. She is a prevention scientist who studies the application of developmental principles to the problems of children and families. 

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