On Work and Why We do It
June 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
One of my son’s friends is a pastor who counsels a lot of young people and has a great blog. I found his post yesterday particularly relevant for writers, so I’m passing it on below.
My dad was a farmer who probably should never have been a farmer. I don’t mean that he wasn’t good at it. He was. Really good. I mean how he got into it. His dad was a farmer, and his dad’s dad was a farmer. So when he came back home, with a masters degree in History in hand, he farmed.
Sometimes he would take me with him. He’d sneak into my bedroom early, before the sun was up, and with hushed voice tell me to put on some old clothes. We’d climb into his GMC pick up, khaki colored, front window slightly cracked from that time a sudden bump on a dirt road sent my head crashing into it, and we’d head to the farm.
Mom would sometimes protest, but this was men’s work. Men’s work that thankfully involved stopping at a convenience store along the way to pick up a honey bun and coffee. We didn’t drink it black. People who drink their coffee black feel like they’re trying to prove something. We took it with copious amounts of cream and sugar. This was playing hooky from school at its finest.
I can remember him asking me several times on those sacred trips, “What do you think you want to do when you grow up?” My only category was a farmer, so that’s what I said. And he would always say back, “It doesn’t matter to me if you’re a farmer, or a doctor, or a ditch digger, as long as you love what you do.” Those words still ring in my ears. Looking back I’m not sure if they were a promise offered from contentment, or a warning offered from frustration. My dad was the best farmer who probably should never have been a farmer that I ever knew. Because whether he loved it or not, he put himself into the work.
Which brings me to the Spurs, who, now that I think about it, are kind of like the farmers of basketball. Slow. Old. Boring. Plodding. Unselfish. All of these are words that are regularly used about them. Flashy. Impatient. Selfish. Young. These are words that are almost never used about them. They are a throwback team, but not even to the NBA of Jordan, Magic and Bird. More to the NBA of Havlicek, Cousy and Russell. A precious basketball relic playing in our midst.
The thing about the Spurs that feels so strange is that they are men who put their work before their personalities. In an age where “Which [Insert TV Show] Character Are You?’ quizzes clog up our Facebook feeds, it’s almost impossible to imagine a “Which Spur Are You?” quiz. Mainly because we know so little about them, their private lives, their personalities.
It’s not that they don’t have personalities. It’s that it seems they genuinely believe that the work comes first. You show up and do your job. Day in and day out, night in and night out. Discipline. Self-control. Work ethic. Selflessness. Humility. These things matter. Because the best way not to be a flash in the pan is to be a slow cooker instead. To know yourself deeply without feeling like you have to share yourself widely. I bet the Spurs’ Twitter feeds are incredibly boring, if they even have them at all.
Which brings me to one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite shows, The Wire. It comes from a conversation between Lt. Daniels and a young officer, Carver. Daniels is warning him about the pitfalls of trying to climb to the top. And in a moment of prophetic wisdom, Daniels says to him, “Comes a day you’re going to have to decide whether it’s about you, or about the work.”
If it’s about you, then the work ultimately becomes life or death, make or break, sink or swim, home run or strike out, and I just ran out of extremes, but you get the point. It becomes a way of telling myself, my family, the world, that I am somebody. Work becomes something I need to justify my existence instead of a joyful, if at times frustrating, part of my existence.
If it’s about the work, then you become a small part of something much bigger. You put the time in, you work hard, you spend yourself. But it’s not for yourself. It’s for others. It’s for the work itself, because you love it, and you hate it, but you’re committed to it. Not in order to stop time for everyone to notice you, but to keep time, to stay in rhythm with it, joining countless others in this line of work that has a past and a future, both happily without you.
When the work is about you, it makes rest impossible. You NEED the work, need to prove yourself through it, find yourself in it.
When it’s about the work, you can rest. It’s an integral part of your life, but it’s not your life. You can take it up and put it down. You can be yourself in it because you have a self, a life, apart from it.
This is the most freeing thing I could ever tell a twenty something who sits down to coffee with me and wants advice about which direction they should go.
First, that their work, whether it’s farming, doctoring or ditch digging, deeply matters to God and therefore to the world. It’s work we need. It’s work that’s good. It’s work that matters.
But the second is the harder one. It’s not about you, it’s about the work. It’s not an accessory to show off at parties, a desperate attempt to justify your own blood and bones.
It’s a calling, a holy invitation to put your head down and plug away in obscurity for the love of the work itself, in all it’s glory and frustration.
Do something you love, that you’re good at. Absolutely.
But don’t make it about you. Make it about the work.