Saturday, September 1, 2012

Shaping a more just society through our work

From an early age, I learned the value of work. My father owned a dry cleaning and laundry business. In its heyday, the business employed about a dozen people, and did the laundry for a number of local hotels and motels.  At around age 12, my sisters and I began helping on the laundry side. We fed sheets through the flat iron, and folded them. We loaded washing machines and dryers with towels, and folded them when they were dry. We counted out both the sheets and the towels, stacked them, and wrapped them for delivery.

As we got older, we assumed more responsibilities, and worked more hours. We learned how to press shirts with a really cool pressing machine that also folded them. We learned some basic office skills, and served the customers.  The time required to complete the work determined the length of the workday, after which we went home to enjoy the summer afternoons.

That early experience of work helped me to develop a strong work ethic. There was nothing glamorous about working in a hot, humid laundry, but we did our job well, and with pride.  While I do not remember my parents saying it, somehow I learned that every job is worth doing well. I told myself this repeatedly when I was a university student cleaning toilets in a hospital. It was not a glamorous job, but I did it well, and with pride.

I remember feeling proud to have a job because I was making a contribution. I was making a contribution to my family; my parents did not have to work quite so many hours while employees were on vacation if we helped out. With my earnings, I was able to contribute to my education and my future.  I also liked to think that I was making a contribution to others. Perfectly laundered sheets and towels might make guests feel more comfortable while away from home. A clean bathroom might help to lift a sick person’s spirit, and help them feel cared for.

Work is relational, and involves us with others
While I no longer have a job per se, I still find value in the work that I do.  Whether it’s washing the floor, doing laundry, working on a volunteer project, or writing a column, work provides my daily life with structure and purpose.  In my experience of work, whether it is paid, unpaid, or volunteer work, work is relational. It involves us with others, and affects others.  

Something as simple as providing an orderly home environment gives all family members a sense of consistency and security.  Consistently executing a job properly, and with attention to detail demonstrates a sense of responsibility to the common good.  A worker who pulls their weight shows respect for co-workers. Employers who treat employees as members of a team, not as wheels in a cog for corporate profit, honor the dignity of each individual. 

We can imbue the workplace with elements of the sacred
While the workplace is a secular environment, we can imbue it with elements of the sacred through the manner in which we conduct our selves. Our approach to our work, and our interactions with co-workers reflect our character.

We do not need to be Bible thumping fanatics at work in order to express faith. By expressing our faith in unobtrusive ways, we can make a difference to the culture of the workplace. The workplace can become a community of caring individuals, who respond to the needs of one another, and to the needs of the community beyond the workplace.


We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers
From time to time, we read stories of groups of workers reaching out to others. These groups fund-raise, donate the money to charity, or to a family that is struggling with an unexpected disaster, or a debilitating illness. This workplace outreach begins with individuals who are motivated to help someone who is suffering.  While their actions  may not be religiously motivated, these groups of individuals are practicing a dimension of their spirituality. Through their compassionate response to the needs of others, they  remind us that we have a responsibility for one another. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

Our culture of consumerism has conditioned us to base the value of our work on dollar amounts.  We tend to think of our work in terms of what our earnings enable us to purchase. When we begin to view our work as something more than a paycheck, we begin to see new possibilities for creating and shaping a more just society.

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