Very rarely do you read a book that is penetrating in it’s insights, hilarious and yet sobering. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton is one of those books. In the book he explores ten different industries and uses them as a mirror to help us see the way our culture views work.
But what in the end is work all about? Is it trying to make something of ourselves? Is it something that gives life meaning? De Botton’s final words in the book are telling:
To see ourselves as the centre of the the universe and the present time as the summit of history, to view our upcoming meetings as being overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries, to read only sparingly, to feel the pressure of deadlines, to snap at colleagues, to make our way through conference agendas marked ’11:00 a.m. to 11:15.: coffee break’, to behave heedlessly and greedily and then to combust in battle, – maybe all of this, in the end, is working wisdom. It is paying death too much respect to prepare for it with sage prescriptions. Let it surprise us while we are shipping wood pulp across the Baltic Sea, removing the heads of tuna, developing a nauseating variety of biscuit, advising a client on a change of career, firing a satellite with which to beguile a generation of Japanese schoolgirls, painting an oak tree in a field, laying an electricity line, doing the accounts, inventing a deodorant dispenser or making an extended-strength coil tube for an airline. Let death find us we are building up our matchstick protests against its waves.
If we could witness the eventful fate of every one of our projects, we would have no choice but to succumb to the immediate paralysis. Would anyone who watched the departure of Xerxes’ army on its way to conquer the Greeks, or Tai Chan Ahk giving orders for the construction of the golden temples of Cancuén, or the British colonial administrators inaugurating the Indian postal system, had it in their hearts to fill their passionate actors in on the eventual fate of their efforts?
Our work will at least distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us
respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.
As an atheist, DeBotton sees that death is going to render every part of our work as null and void. But what about if God exists? Does God make work meaningful? Here is what Pastor Tim Keller says about meaningful work in the face of death:
“Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavours, even the best, will come to naught.
Unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavour, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”
Keller says that work in this life, when viewed at through the lens of eternity, will be meaningful and will matter because work done in the service of God has eternal ramifications.
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