Good Work

J U L Y   2 0 2 0

There’s a lot of hard talk these days about societal collapse. People are getting scared. Young people are seriously worried about what the future holds. There’s the specter of climate change, pandemics, economic breakdown, species extinction, air pollution, soillil sproutdepletion, the scarcity of clean water, increasing racism, xenophobia, refugees, the proliferation of arms, despotic governments, systemic injustice, overpopulation — the list goes on and on.

It feels distasteful to me to recite it again — you already know all of this — why spend your precious time reading about it again when there’s not much you can do about any of it?

This sense of hopelessness and disempowerment is what I want to speak to here — the feeling that we can make no substantial change in this juggernaut of social and ecological collapse. I believe we can contribute to real change, and that we do, every time we turn our hearts, minds, and bodies to what I’m calling here good work.

What’s good work? Any work that heals. Any work that protects and nurtures life in its wholeness. Any work that contributes to the beauty and flourishing of the community of life on earth. It’s that simple.

The challenging practice for each of us is to ask of whatever work we find ourselves doing: “Is this good work? Does it heal? Does it protect and nurture life? Does it contribute to the beauty and flourishing of life on earth?”

We must ask it of our careers. We must ask it of the work our company or institution is engaged in. Does this work nurture life? Does it contribute to life’s beauty and to the possibility of joy and communion? These are demanding questions; they quickly reveal how much of what we humans do diminishes life rather than nourishes it.

I realize this may sound simplistic and even naïve, especially when whole books could be written about what I’m trying to express in a few hundred words. We know the vast economic system we’re part of is enormously complex and all-encompassing, dedicated as it is to resource extraction, growth, consumerism, and militarism, with profits going to the rich and powerful. It’s easy to feel caught inside this remorseless, churning machine, and even if the work we’re doing isn’t good work, we can feel that we simply have no choice. We need the job. We need to provide for ourselves and our family. When that’s the case, of course, do what’s necessary, but don’t stop there. Make it your life’s intention to find good work. Keep looking. Get creative. As soon as it’s possible to do so, abandon whatever life-defeating work you’re doing and find work that serves life. If you’re a young person just starting out, dedicate your talents to finding and creating good work, work that helps build a better world. No matter how small your gesture may seem, it’s the only difference that will make a difference.

And one more thing, now that I’m giving advice: even good work can become anti-life if we treat it as drudgery. Sweeping the floor, chopping vegetables, washing the windows — these tasks definitely nurture life, but that nurturing can be betrayed by our attitude if we resent doing them. The other day I was trying to fix a small leak in the plumbing in the crawlspace under our house, a task I felt fine doing, until I had to wriggle under a pipe on my belly through the dust and cobwebs, and suddenly I cursed, feeling irritated and sorry for myself. The sound of my curse stopped me. I lay there in the dust and realized what I was doing — I was making good work into bad work. I was letting a challenging situation for my aging body infect my spirit with annoyance and self-pity. That’s all I needed in that moment, that realization. My irritation vanished. I kept wriggling along, got to where I needed to be, and fixed what needed fixing. Good work, all of it.

The point I’m hoping to make here is that in the face of all that’s going wrong, all that’s mean and destructive and unholy, neither complaining nor giving up will change the trajectory we’re on. Our very best chance of making a better world is for each of us to find and create good work, the work that needs to be done. There’s so much of it!