“I can honestly say that I have never worked a day in my life.” The elderly horticulturalist, standing surrounded by the multicoloured flowers of his garden, gestured towards their loveliness. “How can I say that looking after these flowers is work? It is sheer pleasure. It is for these that I wake up in the morning, hurry to get dressed and have my breakfast so than I can be in the garden as early as possible and for as long as possible. Ever since I was a child I have loved plants and so, as an adult, I do the same sort of things that I did many years ago: I play in the garden. That is why I say that I have never worked a day in my entire life. Planting seeds and watching them grow is not work. Clearing a patch of soil so that it produces flowers is not work. Digging the soil, even when it is hard, is something I did from my earliest years. I do not work: I play - and I play from morning till night.”
Sadly, not everybody finds such joy in their work. For many people across the world, work is drudgery and far below their potential. A lack of education, skills and opportunities limit countless numbers of individuals from finding a worthwhile occupation that will give them peace, happiness and an income adequate to support themselves and their families. In developing countries where subsistence farming alone provides the next meal, people often have time for leisure, but only after backbreaking work with rudimentary tools. A mission doctor working in a remote area of Zambia, for instance, found as a result of her studies that for many of the families for whom she cared, the possession of a bicycle made the difference between subsistence and enough. “Having a bike”, she commented, “means that a member of the household has transport to buy and carry seeds and fertiliser more efficiently than when the only means of leaving the village is on foot. Frequently, the bike is also used, especially during the dry season, to carry water to the field and also to the house. At harvest time, crops can be taken to more distant markets than when they have to be carried in small bundles on the heads and backs of family members. This means that a family can grow some crops for their own use and some as a means of income.”
In countries such as India, where the caste system is often the overriding factor, many occupations are limited by social status. It is extremely difficult, for instance, for an adivasi (a member of an indigenous ethnic group) or a dalit (lowest caste or ‘untouchable’) to progress beyond the most menial occupations.
Yet it is not long ago that, in this country, people from the lower reaches of society were described as “not knowing their station” if they tried to find a better way of life. Even education was limited, so that they would “know their place”. Their “betters” worried lest literacy give them “ideas”. Those who followed the progress of the characters of Downton Abbey will recall the horror of some members of “the family” when a maid wanted to find work as a secretary rather than to continue looking after the people “upstairs”.
Work is a real value of our society. It confers dignity, self-respect, status, interest and provides an income. We expect people to work and earn their living. Even St Paul wrote, “If they will not work, let them not eat”. In times past, much was made of the “deserving and undeserving poor”. Poverty was often seen as culpable. If someone was hard-up, it was their own fault. This attitude led to the establishment of the workhouses where many thousands of impoverished families were consigned when they had no other resources to keep them together. The hard work to which even small children were subjected was slavery. It was no different to the plight of those people who were forcibly transported from their own homes, often to other countries, to work for others for little or no pay. Slavery continues today: witness the current efforts to address issues of human trafficking.
Our society regards employment as of such high value that to be unemployed can be excruciatingly difficult. Of course there are families where laziness and benefits are transmitted from generation to generation, but they are in the minority. To be unable to find work can be totally demoralising for the individual and for the family. That is why we have recently heard that first-year university students begin searching for a job rather than waiting until their final year. Many graduates, even a couple of years after leaving university, have still not found an opening in their chosen field.
Many of us also know the sickening feeling which accompanies the discovery that a job has been terminated, perhaps by redundancy or illness or some other cause. The future becomes a complete unknown and a nightmare as seemingly secure ground slips away. Uncertainty about the future accompanies every waking moment and disturbs every hope of a good night’s sleep.
For some migrants, the laws of their new countries limit their possibilities of making a new life. I well remember a situation in Melbourne many years ago, when a Vietnamese doctor and a psychiatrist could only get jobs as a bus conductor and driver. Having risked their lives as boat people to travel to Australia, the chances of eventually practising their professions depended on their willingness to take up work far below their capabilities for a government-specified period.
The poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote that, “all work is empty save when there is love”. True, but what about the times when it is only love that enables someone to continue working, day after day, when what they are doing is mindlessly boring and perhaps a cause of great suffering? Is that work “empty” or martyrdom? What happens when those for whom the hours of “hard labour” are spent do not appreciate such self-sacrifice, determination and perseverance?
Gibran also said that, “When you work with love, you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God." One’s occupation can be a wonderful way of self-discovery. It can also be an amazing opportunity to find meaning in life through a developing relationship with workmates and with God. It is not surprising that the Psalmist once prayed, “Give success to the work of our hands”.
When Gibran reflected that, “Work is love made visible”, he was speaking of the ideal. Not all of us are as fortunate as the horticulturalist who so loved his occupation that it was like playing. To a certain extent, he was being facetious: he knew full well that to bring his garden to its perfection had required considerable hard work. There were probably days when he would also have preferred to turn over in bed and sleep for another hour. There must have been times when the last things he wanted to see were his gardening tools. Yet his success lay in the fact that he tried, tried and tried again - just like the rest of us - and the results were spectacular.