Seeking The Satisfaction Of Meaningful Work
This article is drawn from the Why Work? podcast series, in which Paul Kim, Sibs Sibanda and Lise-Marie Keyser explore Dorothy Sayers’ influential essay on the topic. Although written during World War II, Sayers’ counter-intuitive observations still offer valuable insights into why we work, and how we should think about work.
As mentioned in the article Why We Dream About Our ‘Dream Job’, most of us think of work as a necessity – something that needs to be done so we can look after ourselves and the people who depend on us. Dorothy Sayers does not deny this, she just insists that this is not, ultimately, the reason why we work.
She argues from the biblical worldview that a) not only are we created to work, and b) are we called to specific type of work, but also that c) there is a sense of fulfilment we can only get from doing good work, well. And so, work should be valued “as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God” [emphasis mine].
What she’s saying has many implications, such as how work and rest are connected, and why it’s important to find satisfaction and meaning in our work.
So, how does this idea (that work should be a way of life) make us think differently about what most people believe about work?
1. Work and rest are integrated rhythms
In Genesis 2:2, we read that by “the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work”. God rested from his work of creation, and that is generally how we tend to think about rest – we rest after we finish our work.
But Sayers adds a fascinating perspective, stating that:
“… we should no longer think of work as something that we hastened to get through in order to enjoy our leisure; we should look on our leisure as the period of changed rhythm that refreshed us for the delightful purpose of getting on with our work.”
So we should think about rest not only as recovery from work already done, but also as preparation for work still to be done.
This may seem like a strange idea, but in some fields of work this has become the standard approach. For example, professional athletes are known to take the integration of their training, eating and resting rhythms very seriously in order to achieve peak performance.
2. Leisure cannot be our purpose in life
Let’s consider another example from the world of sport. What would you think of a rugby player who hates the 80 minutes of game time, and only plays for the sake of the half time break? Yet isn’t despising our work week and living only for the weekends quite similar?
When we base our weekly emotional cycle on the belief that life is fundamentally about leisure, this means that (in our minds) work becomes a necessary evil to endure in order to get to our ‘me time’. But if we resent what we are doing during most of our waking hours for keeping us away from ‘our purpose’ (which essentially is to have fun), no wonder there is a global mental health crisis!
However, if (as Sayers suggests) weekends and holidays are a bit like half time in a match, they are not just about resting from the first half, but also about preparation for the important second half. This changes things completely – we don’t endure work so we can have great weekends, we have restful weekends so we can prepare for good work!
3. We are called to do ‘good work’
So if there is a call to really get immersed in our work, or to make work “a way of life” – then the question of what work should be done, becomes critical. Sayers summarises it as follows:
“[We] should fight tooth and nail, not for mere employment, but for the quality of the work that we had to do. We should clamor to be engaged in work that was worth doing, and in which we could take pride. The worker would… feel a sense of personal responsibility… about the quality of the work demanded and the honesty, beauty, and usefulness of the goods produced.”
Think about it. Why do we subconsciously expect people in some professions (like sport stars, artists, or pilots) to love their jobs? Why do we instinctively admire those who are truly dedicated to their work (like some teachers, engineers, security guards, or nurses)? What started the worldwide trend of “finding your why”?
Isn’t it because deep down, we know that doing good work is worthy of our time and effort? That doing good work serves others (whether directly or indirectly) and contributes to the world? That doing good work (that we are suited to) increases our self-respect, earns the respect of others, and enables us to positively engage with life?
Unfortunately, we live in a world that demands cost-cutting and drives ever-increasing consumerism for the sake of shareholder profits. We live in a world where the affordability of products and services is a real concern for most people. These two sides of the economic coin (making more money while selling things cheaply) mean that volume has become more important than quality, and as far as workers are concerned, efficiency has become more important than having any sense of pride in our work.
Sayers summarises the problem well:
“The greatest insult which a commercial age has offered to the worker has been to rob him of all interest in the end product of the work and to force him to dedicate his life to making badly things which were not worth making.”
So then, how can we think and act redemptively in this economic context? Perhaps it is time we take God’s example for us seriously: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Perhaps we should follow the apostle Paul’s advice “to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:23–24).
It is good for us to seek the satisfaction of doing meaningful work, to take pride in doing good work, and to be pleased with what we’ve accomplished. Because the work we do, and how we do the work we do, represents who we are. It is the logical conclusion of doing work that has love for God and love for neighbour at its centre.