Meaningful work is not a luxury

Looking toward my building from a nearby roof at sunset

Looking toward my building from a nearby roof at sunset


I recently copied this line down into my notebook: “My own idea of God, as imperfect and as evolving as it is, right now, would be the glue that hooks everything together; the consciousness that moves between all living things.”

These are the words theologian Barbara Brown Taylor uses to describe the mental image of God that she has formed through decades of studying and teaching world religions to seminary students. A lifetime steeped in Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and other faith traditions has left her with a sense that a sacred beauty is found everywhere that humans work to connect themselves to the infinite.

Here is another line I copied down recently: “I never should have dreamed about meaningful work. I should have settled for clerical work and been happy with it. I feel stupid for reaching for anything in life.”

These words are from Kathryn, a 35-year-old museum studies college graduate quoted at the end of Anne Helen Peterson’s recent piece on the U.S. student debt crisis. Kathryn took out $118,000 in student loans to fund her degree, and she has little hope of paying them back or building a career in her field.

In the space between these two experiences — the theologian glimpsing the interconnectedness of all things and the debtor sensing herself permanently excluded from that interconnection — stretches an impossible question: What is meaningful work and who gets to do it?

I think of meaningful work as the labor by which we weave ourselves into the overall story of the universe. It is the work of hooking things together. We each have an innate desire for meaning; we each want to make sense of our own existence by connecting it to some larger, all-pervading story. Meaningful work is how we do that. It is a human activity as essential as drinking water.

But we often use the term meaningful work to refer to something slightly different: employment that meets all our needs at once, not just the soul’s need for connection but also the body’s need for food and shelter. As we do the work that satisfies our souls, the thinking goes, we can get paid money that we can exchange for all the things our bodies need.

Unfortunately, this kind of work, the kind that provides both meaning and money, turns out to be nearly impossible to find.

Many of today’s most pressing social and economic debates point back to this very difficulty. The explosion of student loan debt, for example, is fueled by the promise that the path to meaningful work is paved with degrees, and the crisis is compounded by the rapid contraction of long-sacred professions like journalism, law, academia, and even “thought leadership.” The industries where we would most expect our degrees to open up opportunities for meaningful work have no more answers for us than any other.

The underlying theme here is that everyone wants to make a living from work that feels meaningful, but the systems we are living in tend to work against us.

I don’t know what we can do about our systems, but I do know what we can do about ourselves. We can start by acknowledging that our desire for meaningful work is innate and sacred. It can’t be denied or repressed. If we ignore it, it will come back to us in the form of inarticulable despair.

Once we have recognized our meaning-making as an essential part of ourselves, we can begin to carve out ways to honor it. We can ask ourselves questions like: What are the closest hooks we can grab onto? And in the absence of institutional space for our work, what space can we create for it in the margins of our lives?

These are hard questions, but I believe that if we let ourselves ask them, we may find answers that surprise us.

Wherever you are, and however you’re making your living right now, I hope you’re in a place that you can feed both your body and your soul. I hope you’re finding work that sustains your physical existence as well as work that hooks you into the universe.

If you aren’t yet, maybe try starting in the margins. Notice the orange sunsets on rainy evenings, and little by little, work your way outward from there.

Posted on May 5, 2019 .