Meaningful Work

“We know on a fundamental level that working for forty years at a job we hate, for the sake of maybe ten years of retirement during which we can do what we want, is a big gamble (since we might not live to retirement, or our retirement savings might not be there if we do) and maybe even a hatred of life, as Wendell Berry once said.”

Chris Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church

I enjoy work. Work, it seems to me, is a good thing. To my way of thinking, a full and complete life requires meaningful work.

I did not always think this way. For many years I saw work as only a means to an end, something to endure in the hope of something better. I worked only to pay the bills, and in the hope that my work would someday enable me to live a life of not-work. I dreamed of a future in which I would be liberated from work.  But I now realize I had no appreciation of what a life without work would be like. What would I do with all that time I spent not working?

For many of us, probably even for most of us, our work is unsatisfying. It is not meaningful work. It is not work that brings us happiness. It is not work that makes the world a better place.

Because of that, our culture has come to see work as something unpleasant, and something that should be avoided if possible. We celebrate the arrival of Fridays and we bemoan the arrival of Mondays.

But I’ve come to believe that it is not work that diminishes life, but rather an absence of meaningful work.

Since I left the practice of law I have kept my bar membership active, just in case I should ever need it. In order to remain an active member of the bar I am required to satisfy continuing legal education requirements every few years. Because I am approaching a deadline, I’ve been listening to legal seminars on my iPod to fulfill my CLE obligation. Yesterday I found myself listening to a seminar focused on electronic discovery rules. There was an extended discussion of a well-known case in Florida in which attorneys were severely sanctioned for what the judge regarded as bad faith gamesmanship in connection with production of certain electronic evidence. The speaker laughingly and sarcastically referred to the lawyer who took over that case from the sanctioned attorneys as the “hero” who had to face the judge and try to mitigate the harm the ruling would do to the party.

That lawyer was me. I had to face a judge who was anxious to punish someone.  Even though I had nothing to do with the mess that had led us there, I was on the proverbial carpet, with a tremendous amount of money (and the reputations of some lawyers) on the line.  I recall the day of that hearing as being very stressful.  But it was just one of many.

As I listened to that seminar and heard those speakers joking about that experience, I was pulling weeds in my tomato garden.

I was doing meaningful work. As meaningful as any work I have ever done in my life.

My day in the tomato garden will never be analyzed by a panel of lawyers and judges.  And that’s just fine by me.

I love my work.