Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 23, 1999
What am I working for?
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
The statistics are clear: we are working more and enjoying it less. What's the matter?
Is it the two-career family? Is the problem the bureaucracy in the workplace, where rules don't fit democratic-minded people?
Why is it that some days all I do is push paper from one side of my desk to another and back, because I can't connect with the dozen other people I need to contact in order to get stuff done? Or is the cause of drudgery economic restructuring - that we are all afraid of being rendered useless, unemployed, obsolete?
Are those of us caught on the corporate ladders, being pushed from above and below, feeling too much pressure at work to perform? To keep our jobs? To show that we are necessary, even while wondering if we actually are?
Has "time-saving" technology actually made our lives busier, more hectic?
While pondering these and similar questions, I stumbled across the following Mexican parable.
An investment banker from the United States was at the pier of a coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the boat were several large yellow-fin tuna. The investment banker complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
"Only a little while," replied the Mexican. The banker asked why he did not stay out longer and catch more fish, and the Mexican said that he had enough to support his family's immediate needs.
The banker then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"
The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, and stroll the village each evening where I sip wine and play my guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life."
The investment banker scoffed: "You should spend more time fishing and, with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.
"Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually New York where you will run your own expanding enterprise."
The Mexican fisherman asked, "But how long will all this take?"
The banker replied, "15 to 20 years."
"But then what?" the fisherman asked.
The banker laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would float your company on the market and sell your stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions."
"Millions . . . then what?"
The investment banker said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village, where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends."
This challenging little parable helps to focus on the question: "What am I working for?"
In the business world work is often understood as a series of functions such as finance, marketing, human relations and production. While each function done competently is necessary for a successful organization, no one function tells us the reason "why" we should work. No one function provides us the over-arching principle that tells us the purpose and meaning of work.
While certain functions may claim the ultimate meaning, such as finance with maximizing profits, marketing with customer satisfaction, production with better efficiency and productivity, or human relations with greater personal satisfaction, they fall short within the Christian tradition as to the end in which work is directed.
Such functions of business provide us with tools and techniques but they do not answer two fundamental questions of work: "What kind of person do we want to be?" and "What kinds of goods and services ought to be made?"
These are fundamentally questions of virtue since we become the subjects of the acts we perform. The goods and services we provide today, and the reasons for which we provide them, affect the kinds of persons we become.
In the Book of Genesis, the inspired author depicts God as a Worker, creating the universe, his supreme masterpiece, his showpiece. What transpires is of special significance for us: "Let us make human beings in our image, according to our likeness . . . male and female he created them. . . . Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion."
In God's design everything is connected and in relationship and, of course, at the end of his work, there is that feeling of satisfaction: "It was very good" and "he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done."
God calls all workers, doctors, factory workers, managers, lawyers, farmers, etc., to work to build the kingdom, to be stewards of the earth, to collaborate, and to have dominion over the land because we are made in God's image.
The human person, through work, can be an ally with the living God. God's creation is not a finished product, just as we are not completed persons. It is precisely through our work guided by God's grace that we can become more reflective of God's image as well as collaborate with God in furthering creation.
Resting on the seventh day is probably not all that dissimilar to "sleeping late, fishing a little, playing with the kids, taking a siesta with the wife, strolling to the village in the evenings to sip wine and play the guitar with our friends."
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