Blog author: jballor
by on Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Very often it is difficult to see in any concrete way how our work really means anything at all. The drudgery of the daily routine can be numbing, sometimes literally depending on your working conditions. What is the purpose, the end of our work?

How can we properly value that aspect of our vocations that involve daily work? How can you and I, in the words of the manager in the movie Elf, “make work your favorite”?

Lester DeKoster, in his little book Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective, connects our work as individuals, defined as what we do in service of others, to the broader impact on human civilization.

The fabric of civilization, like all fabrics, is made up of countless tiny threads—each thread the work of someone. Superficially, any given thread might be readily spared or replaced— that could be my job or yours. Thinking this, we go to work on the margin, so to speak, of culture: Who needs me?

Is this so? Is the fact that each of us might never be missed or easily be replaced proof that what we do does not matter?

Not at all!

What matters is that we do our work! We are daily providing the threads which join with innumerable others in making civilized life possible.

Consider once again the furniture around you. It’s congealed work—and worker. Countless hands fashioned it all along the way from raw material to finished product. Our homes are furnished because there is a tightly woven fabric of civilization, or there would be no chair, no sofa, no table, and no car, no street, nothing at all. What civilizes our world is the fact that work is done. Somewhere in the whole mosaic of goods and services our work is being done too. My chair would be no more useful were it autographed by every hand that gave something to its creation! I can use it simply because everyone did their job.

Suppose that the rain drops, one after the other, opted out of a shower because, after all, what does one little droplet amount to? By itself, of course, not much. But the drops have to be in there, one by one, to make a shower; and it’s the showers that make things grow. No matter that the one tiny drop is anonymous or could in theory be easily replaced. In fact, each drop combines with every other to slake the thirst of the earth.

Wholes are possible only because there are parts!

No drops—no showers. No tiny threads of work, no civilization. Doing the daily job provides the daily thread: that is what matters!

If we put a painting under a microscope, it becomes apparent that each color exists thanks to innumerable tiny dots. If we analyze a television screen, it is evident that the figures we see are in fact visible because each is composed of small individual units. And if we could trace our automobiles back through all the steps involved in making them, we would find workers’ hands investing workers’ selves every step of the way. All wholes are made up of individual parts. What matters, always, is not who can count the parts or how readily each part could have been replaced. What matters is that the parts are, each of them, there! What matters is that the job, each job, like yours or mine, has a doer and gets done.

Unless many workers just like ourselves did give themselves to making the chairs we are now sitting on, we would be sitting on the floor. Unless, of course, nobody ever invested himself in making us a floor. Then we would be sitting on the grass out in the backyard—unless nobody ever planted and mowed the grass! In a world without work being done by countless and anonymous someones, we would all be Tarzans swinging from tree to tree.

The day we went to work we locked hands with humankind in weaving the texture of civilized life—and our lives each found the key to meaning.

Our thread counts because it is done!

The work we do as individuals every day are little threads that providentially fit together to form the fabric of civilization. This is true no matter how glamorous or seemingly ignominious our work is.

Mike Rowe, the host of the Discovery Channel’s show Dirty Jobs, provides great reflection on the nature of these “dirty” jobs and how they fit into the service of others, the building of our souls, and the fabric of our civilization (HT: 22 Words).

The whole thing is worth watching, but the conclusion in the last five minutes is very powerful and accurate. Mike says, “We’ve declared war on work as a society, all of us. It’s a civil war. It’s a cold war, really….”

If this is true, and I think it is, what does that mean for our civilization?


  • Becky

    Thank you for posting this. I keep trying to tell people, that if a company is set up right (meaning a position wasn’t added just to give uncle Joe a job) then every single job in that company is important and needed or they wouldn’t have that position in the first place. And that you need to look at it like you’re a part of something bigger, and the part you play in it is important.

    Thanks, again.

  • Patrick

    Jordan, Thank you for posting this. It as fun topic.

    Rowe starts out his talk with an anecdote that leads to an interesting dilemma, or mystery or just confusion in my mind. Is the work of the SPCA, Humane Society or PETA a service, when it is compensated, but cruel to the lambs, and possibly less productive?
    As we head into the Advent season, which culminates with Christmas and the Child in the manger surrounded by shepherds while His life is threatened by the authorities, the salvific aspects of work, purpose or vocation come to mind. Cain, the farmer, kills Able, the shepherd, because the shepherd’s work product is more pleasing to God than the farmer’s. I’m no biblical expert or theologian, but I understand Cain labored at a mediocre level and received equivalent acceptance from God, while Able sought excellence. (Scary, when one considers that no matter what one measures, half the world is below average.)
    Jesus, the Lamb of God, the one truly acceptable sacrifice to God the Father, willing laid down his life (as the Good Shepherd) for his fellow man.
    Jordan, it seems to me that the SPCA, Humane Society, and PETA, if we believe Rowe, have done a well intentioned, but mediocre job.
    If nothing else, there is an abundance of symbols from the incident in the video and Christmas through Easter.