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Lessons on Work and Civilization from ‘Katy and the Big Snow’

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katy-big-snow-virginia-burton“No work? Then nothing else either. Culture and civilization don’t just happen. They are made to happen and to keep happening — by God the Holy Spirit, through our work.” –Lester DeKoster

As we begin to discover God’s design and purpose for our work, there there’s a temptation to elevate certain jobs or careers above others, and attempt to inject our work with meaning from the outside. Yet as long as we are serving our neighbors faithfully, productively, ethically, and in obedience to God’s will, the meaning is already there.

We can wrap our imaginations around this reality in a number of ways, but one helpful thought experiment is to imagine what would happen if a particular job or task were to be left undone. With our newfound prosperity and privilege, it is sometimes easy to dismiss certain forms of manual or “unglamorous” labor (the plumber, the builder, the garbage collector) in favor of supposedly “higher pursuits.” Yet if any of the workers in these areas vanished, what would happen to civilized society? Indeed, in a way, the simple, tangible nature of such work often provides the clearest illustration of the service and sacrifice God has called us to, bearing fruit we can quite easily taste and see.

I was reminded of this when reading my kids Katy and the Big Snow, the classic children’s story by Virginia Lee Burton (author of another timeless tale about work). Burton tells the story of Katy, a “beautiful red crawler tractor” who was “very big and very strong” and was able to push either a bulldozer or snowplow, depending on the season.

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On the surface, Katy’s gift seems pretty simple: repairing roads, moving snow, and in turn, helping people get from here to there. The service itself is noteworthy and valuable, and folks are grateful for her efforts.

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But it is not until the “big snow” — a storm that levels the entire town of Geopolis, covering businesses and eventually brimming at second-story windows — that we see how Katy’s simple gift has become profoundly interconnected with and interdependent on the needs of her neighbors.

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Problems quickly begin to arise across the city — fires, crime medical emergencies, calls that need to be made, business that needs to be done — and without Katy’s seemingly simple and tiny role, civilization begins to unravel.

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Yet with Katy’s work? Restoration. All “thanks to what Katy did.”

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One is quickly reminded of this bit from Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life:

Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the store shelves, gas pumps dry up, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end and utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in tents, and clothed in rags. The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work. One of the mystifying facts of history is why certain people create progressive cultures while others lag behind. Whatever that explanation, the power lies in work.

Another interesting thing is that if all workers did quit, it would not make too much difference which workers quit first—front office, boardroom, assembly line, or custodial staff. Civilized living is so closely knit that when any pieces drop out the whole fabric begins to crumple. Let city sanitation workers go out this week, and by next week streets are smothered in garbage. Give homemaking mothers leave, and many of us suddenly go hungry and see our kids running wild. Civilization is so fragile that we either all hang together or, as Ben Franklin warned during the American Revolution, “we shall all hang separately.” … The mosaic of culture, like all mosaics, derives its beauty from the contribution of each tiny bit.

When we begin to neglect or disdain our work, or when we fail to appreciate the various forms of service and vocations God has called others to, let us remember that God has knit our work together in the fabric of civilization. He has tasked us and equipped us to cultivate tiny bits of beauty, for the “mosaic of culture” and for the life of the world.

Those that we serve and encounter in our personal circles of economic exchange may not be as easy to identify or appreciate as Katy’s, particularly as the Age of Information expands and the value of “intangible assets” increases. But nevertheless, the meaning we seek will forever reside in this fundamental form and feature of service, out of love and for the good of society, yes, but ultimately for the glory of God.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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