I have an interest in the sociology of work. I’ve had this interest all my life–well, at least since I was eight, but more about that later. Because of my obsession–and, yes, it must be called an obsession–I will, in a couple of weeks, begin a thesis in this subject area. I hope to be able to say something useful to the world about work as a result of my research, and I will be musing on my topic and sub-topics here.
My father, a hard-working union journeyman electrician, used to say to we children–often through tight lips, “Them’s that don’t work, don’t eat.” It was a threat, of course. And, at the end of the day as we all sat around the dinner table while he dished up the food he felt was appropriate for each of us, he would ask what we “did” that day. Having played all day was not considered as “doing” anything. It did not result in less food on our plates, but certainly in his disapproval. In all my growing up years, we only took one family vacation, and I cannot remember him hardly ever staying home from work sick–he went to work sick or not. His work ethic might have been a little too harsh. By his mid-fifties, his body was in such a condition that he could no longer work as an electrician.
When I was eight-years-old and already becoming full of my own opinions, my third grade teacher, no doubt in a fit of exasperation, though Miss Ryan was certainly not prone to fits, as such, asked the entire class who didn’t want to work tomorrow. I, my best friend Bonnie, and one poor, unsuspecting little boy all raised our hands. And, Miss Ryan said, “Fine. So tomorrow you will not work at all.” And we didn’t. We were at that time learning the scientific definition of work, which, as I remember nearly 40 years later, was to put force against an object so as to cause movement.
All that long, memorable day, Bonnie, that now nameless little boy, and I sat quietly at our desks with our hands folded while our classmates worked: they took the timed multiplication tables test we took everyday. And, even though I knew the answers, I could not participate, because it would mean using a pencil, thereby using force against an object to cause movement. We could listen to the lecture, but, even though I knew the answers to the teacher’s questions, I could not raise my hand, for the same reason. We filed out to lunch with the rest of the students and then came back to our desks while the other students went out for lunch recess: technically speaking, play was also work. And, perhaps worst of all, I could not go to the back of the room to the experiment table to make circuits that caused lightbulbs on the table to come on, a bell to ring, and electromagnetic magnets to come to life and attract each other. This was the most heartbreaking thing. At the end of the day, we left our desks, filed into the cloakroom to struggle into our coats and galoshes, and I, at least, walked home older and wiser.
Many–many years later, after high school and college, and therefore, after many years of work and thinking about work, I found myself working in high tech where work was hard but, to me, work often felt like play. I had been schooled to have a career, and I felt that I had one writing about software and teaching people how to use software. But, something was sometimes missing. I related to my work differently than many of my colleagues. We were all making a good living and many of us, myself included, were bringing home more bacon year upon year. But I also brought a fervence and sense of mission to my work that I didn’t always see in those who were there primarily for the money. One day I said to a colleague I’d known for years “I see software development as one of the helping professions.” And, she said, “Well, there’s your problem.”
What I didn’t realize was that I was working out in my own life what Alice Koller identifies as the difference between job, or “money getting,” and work, or your contribution to the world. Well after Alice Koller began speaking to this, David Whyte began writing and speaking about the preservation of the soul in corporate America and work as a pilgrimage of identity. But where did these ideas spring from? The same year I discovered David Whyte’s work, I was taking a class on work and community at a local university, where, now, I will begin my thesis this fall. In that class, we read a wide range of, it seemed to me, Marxist-oriented writings relating the individual to work, the organization, and society.
I struggled with these because they seemed to regularly leave the individual powerless in her own experience, hopeless with regard to her worklife, and this was not my experience, at all. As I seek to express a more positive expression of the individual’s relationship to work and life, I find the work of Virginia Satir, Peter Senge, David Whyte, Alice Koller, Sam Keen, Marsha Sinetar, and Richard Sennet useful. I have also ordered a book on the work of Mary Parker Follet and will be looking at Adam Smith more carefully. I am finding the notion of the three marriages–to self, work, and other–as expressed by David Whyte useful just now as I continue to explore this topic. It seems to speak to my own experience.
Why am I so fascinated by work? I don’t know, really. Was it Miss Ryan’s influence, my father’s, my own career’s influence over my world view, my sadness at the grief of others whom I’ve witnessed struggling with their own relationship to work? Maybe all of the above. Writing this thesis will likely be one of the more difficult pieces of writing I’ve ever completed–or so I’ve been told. More here later on the related necessary exploration.