Work that is meaningful, personal, and truly human

There is something inherently noble about honest work well done, but the process of industrialization and ‘technologization’ has emptied much work of its meaning. Assembly lines are famous for their dehumanizing character. In the United States the service industry has replaced manufacturing. Now we have the new assembly lines of Amazon Fulfillment Centers; we have customer service call centers and Costco greeters that require infinite patience and a paste-on smile as people must represent a vast impersonal organization that has little connection with any local community. Very often a person might be left wondering if they are serving other persons, or only the vast machinery of production and distribution. Meanwhile, more and more human activity is replaced by the computer and robot.

Work is more meaningful the closer the workman is to the product or the ‘servant’ to the one served. So, the more machines, rather than just simple tools, insert themselves between the workman or the craftsman and the finished product, the more the workman or craftsman is reduced to being a mere operator of machinery, which does the real work, so to speak.

As for the product, what has been made, the more directly it is the work of human hands, the more it ceases to be merely functional and becomes a bearer of meaning and beauty. The machine is efficient and produces a mass quantity of identical useful items, but they lack the ‘stamp’ of a person. Each handmade item is specifically the product of a person who made that very item.

Sr. Lucia of Fatima made rosaries for the missions; each rosary was a work not only of her hands, but of her own prayers. In that way, through the rosary, her prayers and her love, reached those who would come to use those rosaries, even though she never met them.

Contrariwise, Milton Friedman spoke of the marvels of free-market capitalism in a single pencil, pointing out that the pencil was ultimately the product of workers throughout the world. What he missed, however, is that each of those workers was so removed from the final product that his intention could scarcely reach the anonymous pencil user at the other end. Indeed, many of those workers were probably completely unaware that some part of their work would end up in pencils being sold in a distant part of the world.

The person who prayed with a rosary made by Sr. Lucia, prayed with a rosary that had been made personally and intended for use by a person living in ‘mission territory’. The user of a pencil makes use of an impersonal product to which countless persons happened to contribute.

So, the old-fashioned village shoemaker, made shoes for those he knew personally. The worker in a shoe factory in China has no knowledge or connection with the user of the shoes. The village tailor made clothes for those he knew personally, the garment worker in a factory in Indonesia has no knowledge or connection with the wearers of the garment. The factory produces an increase in efficiency, certainly, but it also leads to a more impersonal world, devoid of meaning.

Something similar takes place in the ‘service’ industry.

Here we can actually take the non-remunerative work of a mother as our starting place. Hardly any service is so personal and intimate as the cooking, cleaning, and sewing a mother does in the home. The work of a wife and mother is a work of love that bears fruit in a happy husband and children who are well brought up, which means, among other things that they will be emotionally stable and secure, responsible and respectful of others. The old saying was, “A woman’s work is never done”. It is never done because it serves human lives that, in this world, are never complete.

The works of the ‘service industry’, however, move first outside of the home, then outside of the village, becoming ever more remote, automatic, and impersonal to the point that phones are answered by computerized systems. To get to personal interaction in ‘customer service’ one first has to penetrate various layers of automation designed more to prevent personal interaction than to foster it.

All this may seem anti-technological and indeed it is, not in the sense that technology is bad, but that we have simply followed along, without question, letting technology and the technological mindset take over our world. Technology, as such, is not bad, but the technological world is hugely disordered in its removal from the natural, its impersonality and meaninglessness.

Nevertheless, it is one thing to recognize a disorder and another to correct it. Destroying technology is no solution; our lives have literally become dependent upon technology. At least, we must stop celebrating technology, stop pursuing every new gadget, and we must start recognizing the power it has taken over our lives, and looking for ways to diminish that power. The computer must be a servant, not a master.

We must learn to prioritize and maximize work that is meaningful, personal, and truly human.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.