Wednesday, August 19, 2020
Family and spirituality

Finding Meaning in Work by Jason Landsel

I wrote this a few weeks ago and it’s amazing how quickly the pandemic has changed daily life. Having my children home from school certainly changes work priorities, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

It is bitingly cold, with a wind chill factor well below zero. As I turn the key to start the engine, the truck’s defective heating system gives out an asthmatic wheeze of objection.

My load this morning consists of bins of food scraps to be added to the community compost pile and a bale of compressed cardboard to be discarded. There are also several jugs of used cooking oil from yesterday evening’s “community wing night” that must be dealt with.

As I approach the composting site, a horde of crows rises, looping inelegantly. For a moment I dourly take in the view through the frosted windshield, reminded of an Andrew Wyeth landscape. Then I step out of the truck to empty the bins of food scraps, bracing myself for the funky odor as much as for the cold.

And so I start my day with my new part-time job assisting in the community food service department – “Stores” as it’s called here at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. The Bruderhof regularly sends out its members to all corners of the globe to support and seek common ground with all people of goodwill, and I am replacing someone who was dispatched on a mission assignment (to a much warmer part of the country than upstate New York in the winter, but I try not to dwell on that detail).

Jason with a contraption

According to our community work ethos, “None of us has a career. We agree to work wherever we are needed, regardless of our preferences or prior training.” This means we can be asked at any moment to perform a variety of work for the community.

For instance, another area of service I am currently engaged in (one that’s more to my predilection) is supporting my eldest son and his class as they prepare for their school production of Homer’s Odyssey. One of my duties is to create and operate a giant, moveable Cyclops puppet. It has been great fun acting the villainous Cyclops alongside my son, who plays the hero Odysseus.

Besides working in Stores and assisting with the Odyssey, the rest of my day is made up of a couple of hours in an office plus time at the Rifton factory, where I help assemble gait trainers for children and adults with disabilities.

elderly lady caring for children

Outside work hours, my family cares for my mother, who lives down the hall from us. There are no retirement centers in Bruderhof communities: families and community members care for the elderly. My mother joins us for family meals and we help with her basic care, run her errands, and support her in her various activities: she enjoys making gifts for people, babysitting the neighbor’s kids and inviting them to her apartment for a few hours of crafts, stories, or board games.

Not all community members have schedules as diverse as mine. Some people faithfully log long days, month after month, in the community’s kitchen, accounts office, or factory. We say that we consider all jobs equal in value – that no one service is greater than another. It’s easy to declare this to be true while still personally perceiving certain work as more attractive or valuable. And even in community, our work can become mechanical; we get cantankerous and feel as if we are jammed into a monotonous routine. All this elasticity and willingness to work wherever we are required does not persist unless individually we maintain our deeper sense of purpose. As Dostoyevsky pointed out, “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

boys posing for a photo

In his essay “The Soul of Work,” Eberhard Arnold articulates a vision for daily laboring that resonates with and inspires me:

The only work a person can do with his or her whole soul comes from love. And there is no love that does not get to work. Love is work, work of muscle and mind, heart and soul. This kingdom of love, therefore, this kingdom of the church and of the coming rule of God, must be a kingdom of work. Work – truly ­unselfish work – animated by the spirit of brotherhood will be the mark of the future, the character of the humankind to be.

So while community life can be a little irksome at times, and we might lack a “career” in the conventional sense, by contrast we have an opportunity to work collectively for something that is for the betterment of humankind and is driven by more than our individual accomplishment.

And this “future” can be revealed through cooking a meal, putting in hours at a factory, caring for the elderly, emptying garbage bins, or even helping in my son’s play.

All things considered, I find that sort of a career phenomenal.

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