By Benedict Augustine
“’My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
As the saying goes, “the Devil will find work for idle hands.” When a person does not have work, actual constructive activity with a greater purpose in mind, temptation and sinwill descend on the poor idler. People without jobs or any serious responsibilities must experience the stress of not working, a stress that working people rarely understand. Unemployed people do not have fun, as some overly busy people might believe, but they must contend with feelings of uselessness, boredom, inadequacy, humiliation, guilt, and, if they have serious expenses to pay, debt and poverty. Thus, we may complain about work, but very few of us want to lose our jobs.
Although some—like myself—may argue about the merits of her prose, or character development, or her atheism, Ayn Rand showed at least some insight in her novel Atlas Shrugged, when she describes in depth the kind of decline and decay that follows from a lack of work. In a large middle portion of the book, the protagonist of the story tries to find a man, John Galt, whom she believes might have some answers to her questions. During her journey, she encounters a small town that used to have a thriving factory providing many jobs to the town along with all the benefits derived from the revenue it produced and the economic activity it stimulated. Rand, though writing her book in 1957,accurately describes the condition of many industrial towns today, over fifty years later,which have suffered from the mass exodus of manufacturing work. Her description sounds eerily similar to cities like Detroit or Flint Michigan, and probably quite a few other cities that are now doing all they can to keep the industries from leaving. In the novel, the town is covered with blight; the citizens loiter the streets, hungry and hopeless, and many of them have no access to government services like education, medical care, or public safety; even the streets have cracked beyond recognition and many of the stores and office buildings are empty or inhabited by squatters; in every part of the town, despair is palpable and pervasive. If anyone wants to know what comes of idleness, they can read the book—which is long and tedious at parts—or they can learn more about cities in the rustbelt. Whether fictional or real, these settings illustrate idleness in all its gloom and ugliness.
Most people tend to think that these desperate circumstances result from a lack of funds, not work. On an individual level as well as a collective level, less employment means less money, which then means less stuff. If communities and individuals had great stores of wealth, they would not need work; they could finally enjoy life. However, that would be over simplifying the issue. Yes, a lack of money creates stress and hardship, but a lack of productive activity can do the same. Many rich people who do not work but live off past successes or the successes of others, still have to face the demons of the unemployed. They still have to cope with addiction, feelings of uselessness, loneliness, and general depression. Many people know this through watching so many celebrities who seem to have it all but in fact wallow in despair and act with recklessness. Common sense—which, alas, is not so common—would allow most of us to see that a large quantity of money coupled with free time will mostly lead to something bad. Nevertheless, peopleblindly covet the fame, wealth, and recreation of the celebrity.
Does that mean that work, by contrast, confers so many virtues to a person? Should we all become workaholics to find happiness? While many politicians and economists would suggest this, simply working does not bring fulfillment. Honest work can stave off the misery of idleness, but it does not make a person better. Even work that compensates a worker handsomely does not make that person better, just richer. The work must have some kind of meaning or some noble purpose in order to improve the soul of a personand make him better. In the Christian understanding, we would say that work must be subordinated to God’s will. We become better from out jobs when we do it for God’s sakeand the sake of others, not ourselves. My job as a teacher makes me better when I offer the work up to God with gratitude, with energy, and with thought. If I teach for God’s sake, I want to be the best teacher possible and make the greatest use of the gifts and talents He gave me. My job makes me better when I serve my students, a lovable yet frustrating group of adolescents, and help them develop their skills in reading and writing. I make their lives better, and that makes my life better. If I only worked for my own sake, to simply earn a living, have additional vacation, and do as little work as possible, I would actually become a worse person rather than a more virtuous one. My relationship with God as well my students and colleagues would suffer immensely from such selfishness.
Needless to say, teachers, or any employee with this self-centered attitude, do not last long at their job. They are the laborers who quarrel with the landowner for giving the same wages to the newly hired as to them. They found no joy in the work; they simply wanted the wage. Because they had a selfish mindset, their work did not improve them as people, but made them envious and petty. Would they have rather languished in the street, uncertain about making any money that day? Do they really think that those workers hired in the last hour had a better day than them because they waited like idiots on the street instead of working with purpose in the field? Do they think that such complaining entices their employer to hire them another day?
Naturally, some people have this idea when considering the Christian life. They think they assume only burdens and live a life of denial and guilt while their heathen friends and family have a party each and every day. Like the prodigal son’s older brother, they have a certain resentment against those elderly converts who, done with sinning and close to death, can now put that life behind them and be born again in the spirit. They envy the thief who had the amazing good luck to be crucified next to Christ. This is foolishness. By their faith, Christians receive Christ’s grace sustaining them; by their love, they have aspiritual family that will support them all their lives; and by their hope, they will persevere through any hardship and shortcoming because God’s heavenly kingdom awaits them. Christian life becomes drudgery if we lose sight of our blessings and obsess over our own interests. Instead resenting the prodigal son, the thief on the cross, or the newly hired laborers, we should have mercy on their sins and rejoice at their return home. Not only will this make us happier, but it will also make us holy. God expects this mercy of us; Jesus Christ models this mercy for us; and the Holy Spirit empowers us to act with this mercy. If we can accept this gift and command of the Holy Trinity, we can experience the joys of Heaven today as we prepare our souls for everlasting joy in Heaven tomorrow.