Timed, one supposes, with the Labor Day holiday, this past week the U.S. Postal Service announced the results of a national workplace study showing that “going postal” is a myth. A bad rap. Postal workers are no more likely to physically assault, sexually harass or verbally abuse their co-workers than are other employees despite the high profile incidents of letter carriers killing fellow workers or themselves.
However, if the study put to rest the notion of postal workers as imploding under the stress of their work, dissolving into insane violence, it did confirm some of the TV stereotypes of malcontent letter carriers such as Newman on “Seinfeld” and Cliff on “Cheers.” People who work for the post office are not happy, to put it mildly, in their jobs. They are twice as likely to say they would change jobs for the same pay and benefits. They are more likely to file formal grievances and to distrust their bosses. And while it has proven to be untrue, they are six times more likely than others in the national work force to believe they are unsafe, at risk of violence from their co-workers.
This rate of workplace restlessness and disgruntlement is especially significant because the Postal Service is America’s second largest civilian employer, behind only Wal-Mart. That’s a lot, a huge lot, of dissatisfied, dispirited people whose work does not cause them to give thanks and praise for all that is their lives. Not the working part.
Quite the opposite.
If it has now been proven that post offices are not literal war zones filled with homicidally enraged employees, they still may be battlegrounds of another sort for the people who work there. Workers doing battle with boredom day after day. In a newspaper story on tedious jobs, mail clerk Kim Nixon said that sorting thousands of pieces of mail is “boring, boring, very boring.”
She is joined by people like teenager Wesley Marrs who complains that his part-time job of filing e-mail resumes is “the same thing over and over, all day.” And others like private eye Jim Bearden who describes his job as “hours of sheer boredom separated by seconds of sheer terror.”
Alan Carbuba, who founded what has been called a semiserious, semispoof The Boring Institute in Maplewood, New Jersey, says his website gets 80,000 or more hits every month from people seeking help with humdrum, much of it experienced during their working hours. People who take to calling in sick or coming in late to avoid monotony, and, who, if the tedium continues unabated, become depressed on a much thicker and deeper level. Work may not be physically dangerous for them, but psychically life threatening.
Now on the job tedium is nothing new, anthropologists point out. Early humans had to cope with it, while waiting hours for an animal — potential dinner — to come to a water hole. They were isolated, they were made to keep still, to keep quiet. But the reward was clear. Their own survival was at stake. First the kill and then the food that would keep them alive.
Work was associated with meeting an indisputable human need, indeed a need of all living things. In the hierarchy of human needs, without a doubt the need for food, water, and shelter, and the work that goes into acquiring them, comes first. And some safety and security in the work we do to provide for ourselves and those dependent upon us. I wouldn’t feel right this Labor Day weekend, most especially as the granddaughter of the man who founded the Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in Boston, if I didn’t back up and point out the basic issues that were at stake and remain at stake around this national observance.
While more than 100 years after the first Labor Day there is still some doubt as to who actually proposed the holiday for workers, it is generally accepted that Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, first suggested a day to honor, he said, those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Behind these lofty, even spiritual words, was his own personal history as the son of a poor Irish immigrant living in New York City in the Civil War Years. Eleven year old Peter sold papers on the street, shined shoes and ran errands while his father was away in the Union army. Peter was not unusual. Thousands of immigrant children had to go to work, many of them in factories where they labored for ten to twelve hours a day, stopping only for a short time to eat. And unable to miss work even if they were sick or exhausted, because there were thousands of people waiting to take their places.
Young Peter became an apprentice in a piano shop to learn a trade, and while it was a better job than some of the others he had already had, he still worked long hours for low pay. In the spring of 1872, Peter McGuire and 10,000 other workers went out on strike and marched through the streets, demanding, for starts, a decrease in the long work day.
This event convinced Peter of the need for an organized labor movement for the future of worker’s rights, a conviction that got him labeled as a “disturber of the public peace,” and chronically unemployed. He moved around, starting carpenter’s unions in St. Louis and Chicago. The idea of organizing workers around their trades, an old medieval system really, spread nationwide. Factory workers, dock workers, tool makers, dressmakers, all began to demand and get their rights to an eight hour work day, a secure job, and a future for themselves and their families. And on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, the first Labor Day demonstration and picnic was held.
Needless to say, the creation of a Labor Day holiday did not put an end to all labor problems, or indeed, define for all time what those problems are. If my grandfather’s story is any indication, ironical twists and complications very quickly set in. Grandpa Louis, who came over in steerage as a young teen to work for a few years and then return home to his parents, fell in love with my grandmother and deliberately missed his return voyage home. He worked in an overcrowded, unsafe, tinderbox clothing factory and then organized a union for the mostly female dressmakers.
When he married and started his family, he himself became a clothing factory owner, an employer instead of worker. And at one point in the years he manufactured coats, his female employees went out on strike with the union he created. And picketed his business.
Perhaps that is one reason, that and the times I happened to come to adulthood in, that I started with the assumption that work should be at least somewhat safe and decent paying. Conditions, I am acutely aware, that have still not been secured in sweat shops and poultry plants worldwide, or closer than we may want to believe. And that women had the right to work to support and to fulfill themselves, a right, as many of us already know, that is being denied at this moment in places like Afghanistan, where the religious leadership, the fundamentalist Taliban — saying that Islam completely forbids women from working — have just recently shut down bakeries run by widows, who are among the poorest of the poor.
That these unfair and dangerous conditions still exist is the first priority for any Labor Day reflection. And yet there are other issues around work that come up once these basic workplace needs are met. Instead of physical damage, there are soul wounds. And crises of the spirit.
That a job could and would cause spiritual pain and suffering was nothing I would have imagined as I entered the workplace. For the women around me, including my own mother (who, again, ironically built her early career on studying the future of recreation and leisure, in a world, she imagined, would be made up of less work time and more free time — not the current marathon of overwork and lack of vacation time) work was at least an imagined source of liberation and spiritual blossoming. Those of us who in the early 1970s sat in those small chairs in our children’s co-op nursery schools dreaming and talking of the day when we could get what we saw as real work, that real work would be life-enhancing, not life-diminishing. We were ready to go.
In those women’s group meetings over banana bread and herbal tea, there was plenty of talk about the tedium sometimes and the emotional difficulties of marriage and parenthood, But, I swear, not a whisper even of worry about what work life might possibly ever lack in terms of meaning and purpose, the spiritual underpinnings of the lives we lead.
We were worried about how we could navigate the world of relationships and the world of work, as Denise Levertov wrote in her “Prayer for Revolutionary Love,” asking that “a woman not ask a man to leave meaningful work to follow her… that a man not ask a woman to leave meaningful work to follow him.”
While we dreamed and plotted, inched or leapt into the workforce, the males around us, especially those from the generation before us, were, it turns out, having quite the opposite response to and expectation of work. At the same time, as Sylvia Ann Hewett wrote in her book, The Lesser Life: The Myth of Women’s Liberation in America, the men of the fifties generation on had come to feel oppressed by their role as breadwinner, no longer believing necessarily that work had meaning at all.
In the parallel universe of men at work, there was ample evidence that while there may have been some degree of external reward for them, underneath, for many of them, as Biff complained in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, “it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on a subway on hot mornings in the summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock or making phone calls, or selling or buying… when all you really desire is to be outdoors with your shirt off.”
C. Wright Mills had an even harsher assessment of the work lives of these generations of American men in particular, “ulcerated people,” he observed, “of uneasy conscience, miserably at war with their tormented selves.”
And in those tense years of the second wave of the women’s movement, Herb Goldberg, reacting in his book The Hazards of Being Male, recorded the bitter comments of a 57 year old college professor: The famous male chauvinistic pigs who neglect their wives, underpay their women employees, are ruling the world, are literally slaves, out there picking cotton, sweating, swearing, taking lashes from the boss, working 50 hours a week. The two sexes going at each other, while the deficiencies of the economic system and workplace hummed along.
I was fortunate, from the beginning, to be doing what from the outside anyway, was always labeled and usually felt like “meaningful” work, work in cultural change and social reform. Unless you count those summer jobs scooping Swenson’s mint chip ice cream, or waiting tables in a senior citizen’s complex — which even then involved obliging them on Sunday evenings with double portions of creme de menthe in their parfait glasses. Nonetheless, about a decade and a half into my professional working life, I entered a workplace where the outer mission was once again laudable and unimpeachable, yet one that became almost immediately a source of incredible stress and hurt, as abusive as any dysfunctional family. A time and place of crazy-making and guilt and recrimination, and time-outs in restrooms and parked cars from what I now realize was systematic emotional abuse. Sleepless nights. Wasted weekends.
And then I finally gave up this work that was good, righteous even, but a job that was killing me. No question it took its toll on my body: exhaustion, stomach aches, infections and all, but the damage to my spirit, that which gives us all hope, our inner glue, was much more acute. As a matter of fact, on many levels, I became un-glued.
And while I did seek professional counseling, from a man who specialized, by the way, in workplace emotional abuse, I never even considered looking to my Unitarian Universalist spiritual community for support or counsel, never called the ordained minister, considering this employment crisis an inappropriate subject for his pastoral care.
There was the world of work, and the world of faith and spiritual practice, and the two seemed utterly disconnected. Somehow my domestic life seemed connected to my spiritual life, perhaps because things like birth, marriage, and death are typically religious sacraments, considered to have a sacred role in our lives — and work has not been recognized in the same way. That divided understanding continued for me as I went through seminary. We were exposed to and trained in the theological and pastoral issues around what we commonly call life passages, but not around work, that activity that is universal, a common human experience, over our lifetimes.
Presbyterian Minister Steven Jacobsen had a similar experience moving from his business career in insurance brokerage and real estate to his work in the church. What is the real world? he found himself asking. The world of banks, mortgages, pension funds, time clocks and computers or the world of prayer, ancient scriptures, homilies and hymns? He was noticing that as a parish minister, the “heart” work of Sunday morning, was not connecting, as he wrote, with the work done by the people’s hands on Mondays.
In a study he did with a group of highly esteemed leaders in secular organizations asking them what role, if any, spirituality, played in their work lives, he began to discover how often the issues people struggle with — spiritually — involves in some way jobs, money and vocation, and how little he was doing, indeed religious institutions were doing, to integrate faith and work.
From the beginnings of my vocational ministry, I have seen how true this is. While I have been asked to listen and counsel in the more traditional arenas of marriage preparation, parent-child and other relationship problems, illness and death, a large number of concerns that I heard, for example, in the first congregation I served as an intern and acting minister, involved work. A long time mid-level Coca Cola manager who was feeling increasingly distanced from and dissatisfied with the career she had given more than 20 years to, to the point of soul-sickness, as she told me. A younger man who found himself routinely road-enraged on the way to and from his workplace, unable to see any connection between what he perceived as his true self and the self he became on a daily basis. Women and men on the verge of retirement, or already retired, experiencing a loss of center once they left their jobs. People struggling with whether they had invested too much or too little of their sense of worth in the work they did Whether the work they did was consistent or at war with their essential values. Whether it robbed them of their dignity, or enhanced it. All of them apologetic and initially reluctant to use the resources of their religious community to help them rediscover their sources of value and meaning. Because their crisis of spirit, again, was associated with work and not with a part of their life, more worthy, in their view, of spiritual guidance and support.
Again, Steve Jacobsen, in his study and resulting book, Hearts to God, Hands to Work: Connecting Spirituality to Work, has done the valuable work of finding scriptural justification in the Jewish and Christian traditions — that ones that formatively shaped most of us — for linking spirituality and work, based on the way the issue has been understood for at least the last 3,000 years.
He points out that in the Jewish Bible, Adam was the first human figure to appear and before anything else is said about him, we hear he has work to do: “God took Adam and Eve and put them in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And to name the other creatures in that garden.” Moses, the fugitive shepherd, finds the burning bush, not while he is in a temple, but in the midst of his daily work. Jewish theology is bound up in the belief in a covenant between God and humans based on the notion that creation — the material world — is good, that humans have a responsibility to earthly life — to a lifetime of good works, good work. As Psalm 104 declares: “People go out to their work, and to their labor until the evening. Oh Lord, how manifold are your works, in wisdom you have made them all, the earth is full of your creatures.”
In Christian scripture, Jesus is clearly identified as a worker of wood, a carpenter, and his disciples also have vocational identities and the dignity of this work: the fishermen learned lessons about the Kingdom of God and the human project in it while casting their nets. In these texts, sometimes people must leave their secular vocations to pursue deeper relationships with God, and sometimes their vocations are the vehicles for revelation and spiritual growth.
Our Reform Protestant roots in particular promote a theology, the Protestant Ethic, where people strive for the glory of God by activity in the affairs of this world. That the work of a holy person, as one writer put it, is not the work of monks in a monastery, but of monks everywhere, all the time: working, buying, selling, meeting people. The priesthood of all believers. For those among us drawn to Buddhism, one of the steps on the eightfold path to enlightenment is Right Livelihood, occupations that promote life instead of destroying it.
Our religious traditions, new and old, do provide perspectives, even wisdom on the life of work as complex as the ones that we draw on to create our own theologies of creation, social justice, death and life after death. There is no single one that I am here to lay out this morning. Today I would simply suggest that as a religious community we pay attention to what poet David Whyte has called the difficulty and drama of work, and the role it plays in our soul’s journey, what he calls the indefinable essence of our spirit and being.
And in the words of Rev. Steve Jacobsen, to assume that people care about what they do for a living. To believe we are called to lives of meaning. To agree that we may come here in part to find a sanctuary from life stresses and the challenges of work, but also to prepare each other for the real tasks we have ahead of us.
For all that is our life, for work and its rewards, we come with praise and thanks to build the common good and make our own days glad.