Dorothy Sayers on Holy Work

My friend Cat and I have been having a conversation about vocation and work, and she sent me this fantastic article Dorothy Sayers wrote in the middle of World War II entitled, Why Work?   Sayers makes the very interesting case that wartime actually does something to benefit the way we engage in our work. We are far less wasteful, for one thing. We are more purposeful overall. And the work we do (particularly the work people do as part of the war effort) is done with high standards. Nobody wants a quickly-assembled war plane, am I right?!

Of course, wartime ends, and we go right back to doing things the “normal” way, which, let’s all admit, is unsustainable. We are driven by profit and speed and efficiency and cheap labor, and it’s killing us.

She writes,

Unless we do change our whole way of thought about work, I do not think we shall ever escape from the appalling squirrel cage of economic confusion in which we have been madly turning for the last three centuries or so, the cage in which we landed ourselves by acquiescing in a social system based upon Envy and Avarice. A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.

So how should we approach work? Sayers says:

(Work) should be looked upon, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.

If you happen to be someone in non-profit work, or ministry, or you are a writer or artist or even a teacher, then you likely already feel the chasm between the value you feel about your work and the amount you get paid for it. And it’s hard not to stare into that chasm and start to wonder if the reason you can’t make this financially work for you is because you’re not good enough at it, rather than realizing you are playing a card game of economics while holding entirely different cards.

You’re not losing, you’re just playing a different game.

The problem, though, is that this creates such anxiety and anger in us. Why are X paid millions when I am only paid X? Well, to be honest, that’s a fair question. The market isn’t great about determining moral value, which is worth remembering. But for our purposes, and to Sayer’s point, these questions are still mired in that old view of work, as if the goal of work is to make money rather than to make something good and worthwhile. We can’t be centered on the value of the work itself if we continue to return to the market’s ways of evaluating it. We have to get off that train altogether.

Sayers again:

The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done. To do so would mean taking the attitude of mind we reserve for our unpaid work – our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure – and making that the standard of all our judgments about things and people. We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “Can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?” And shareholders in – let us say – brewing companies, would astonish the directorate by arising at shareholders’ meeting and demanding to know, not merely where the profits go or what dividends are to be paid, not even merely whether the workers’ wages are sufficient and the conditions of labor satisfactory, but loudly and with a proper sense of personal responsibility: “What goes into the beer?”

What goes into the beer? What goes into the book, the lesson plan, the sculpture, the community project, the worship gathering, the coffee? Not what will pay, not what will be scalable, but what will make it good. Think about this in terms of the problems facing us in education- escalating prices, a harried spaghetti-on-the-wall approach to learning/technology/higher test scores, something akin to a facilities and amenities arms race between schools and colleges. All of these find their root in the wrong questions of the work. They are not asking what best forms educated, mature, mindful people. We may be able to find some better ways forward if we returned to the right questions. We might get some perspective on where to put our energy and our money and our focus.

I know this is a radical shift. But doesn’t that point to the inherent difficulties in our current understanding of work? Truth be told, our global economy rewards an entirely different set of values, and those values aren’t sustainable for us, much less for our world and our planet.

It’s time to think differently. It’s time to find our way toward a view of holy work, holy vocation, whose reward is not income but integrity. 

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