The dignity of work

2009-01-29 00:00

What does it mean to be employed? What are the motives of a person who applies for a job, who is perhaps granted an interview and then who gets appointed? What are his or her reasons for wanting to be em-ployed? Is the main aim to have a job, to get paid or to enjoy whatever status the job gives?

Or is the real purpose to be able to do the job, to carry it out competently, faithfully and imaginatively? If it is a service job, is the primary aim of the job to serve the particular clients or the community at large or is it to serve oneself?

Many people would object to the questions being posed in this way, as a set of contrasting alternatives. Surely, we’d agree, it is not a matter of either/or: it is a matter of both/and. We work to fulfil ourselves and to carry out whatever function the job entails. So it’s good to be employed — to be a part of the working community and to be paid (decently, one hopes) and to enjoy whatever status the job might confer.

But at the same time, and equally importantly, it is good to perform the job’s function and to do it as well as one can, to throw oneself fully into whatever tasks, responsibilities and inventiveness the job might involve.

In fact, properly speaking, it is not a matter of both/and, for having the job and doing the job well should all be part of one process, one experience. One’s pleasure in having the job and whatever goes with it (salary and status) should be directly related to, and enhanced by, the pleasure of doing the job well, of feeling one’s humanity stretched and fulfilled by the exercise of one’s tasks and duties, one’s creativity and generosity.

(In saying these things, I am of course talking about people who are in more or less appropriate jobs. I am very aware that many unfortunate people either have no job at all or are in employment which they cannot easily enjoy.)

Why do I raise these issues? For one simple reason: the ideal that I have put forward — of people enjoying their jobs because they know they are doing them well, being remunerated and respected because they work hard and with dedication — is an ideal that is quite often not taken very seriously. No doubt this is true to some degree everywhere, but it seems to be particularly true in South Africa. One has the impression that a fair number of people, especially in the public sector, have hardly ever entertained the notion that to have a job means to carry it out with care, dedication and enthusiasm.

These thoughts were brought into my mind by two striking events that took place recently: one was a local happening, the other a global one. In both cases one found oneself witnessing people who were totally devoted to their tasks, people for whom total absorption in their responsibilities was an expression of their innermost beings.

On the first occasion I was present in the Colenso Hall of the Anglican Cathedral at a meeting of the Children in Distress Network (Cindi), which bade farewell to Yvonne Spain who has been at the head of the organisation for more than 10 years. All the tributes paid to her, and the account that she herself gave of the dramatic way in which Cindi has expanded in its reach and in its activities over the past decade, made it clear that she has been totally admirable in her commitment, imagination and efficiency. Not only she but Cindi itself, and all those who work within it (many of them voluntarily), are an example of what it means to work, what it means to be absorbed in one’s task and committed in such a way and to such a degree that serving those who need to be served — in this case vulnerable children — is itself a form of self-fulfilment.

Some may ask: is it fair to offer someone like Spain as a role model?

Isn’t the job that she has been doing unusual and remarkable? What is atypical about an NGO worker as a role model is that such people do not normally get paid decent salaries. But in other re-spects there is no reason why she should not be offered as an example. Her job has indeed been remarkable, but all jobs are remarkable if they are approached with a fresh eye and a warm heart.

The second recent occasion that I wish to point to is (as some may have guessed) the inauguration of Barack Obama. Many things have been written about this man and this occasion, but I want to see his inaugural speech as a very fine instance of a person who is determined to give himself wholly to the difficult set of tasks that lies before him. One cannot believe for a moment that he intends to enjoy the kudos of his new appointment without performing passionately the role that he was elected and appointed to perform.

“But it’s absurd to compare an ordinary person in an ordinary job with Obama.” Not at all. Everyone in her or his own way is like Obama.

Every person in a job has an urgent task to perform. Everyone should work with warmth, intelligence and integrity.

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