Come and join us in discussing the topic of working and being with a group of liberally minded people. It will be a great discussion on a topic that so many of us have dealt with as we have moved to Boquete. Rain or shine, we will get together! Hope to see you. The group meets at the home of Joyce and Scott Kinnear in Santa Lucia, which is off of Volcancito.
One fine day in San Francisco, nearly 35 years ago now, I found myself down on Mission Street, standing in line at the unemployment office. Not too many years earlier, as an attorney for the Legal Services Corporation, I had regularly represented people in their disputes with the unemployment office. And just days earlier, I had been the director of legal writing and research at Golden Gate University School of Law.
None of that changed what it felt like to stand in that line. And nobody in the whole place cared a hoot that I had just moved out of a very nice office on almost no notice when the Dean of the Law School decided to solve his financial problem by not having a director of writing and research any more.
When a workaholic is suddenly out of work, when somebody who has measured the value of life mainly by accomplishments suddenly has nothing to do, this is quite an experience. Now I think perhaps my six-month stint of unemployment was some of the best education I ever had. And so a decade later, when I was studying at Starr King School, our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, exploring whether I might be called to the ministry, I decided to have a hard look at the meaning of work—what makes work good or not, and what not working means.
I have been revisiting those times here lately, as I think of those who are going through a variety of transitions in their working lives, some on purpose, some not at all on purpose, and as I find myself revisiting my own ambivalences about retirement.
When I lived in Berkeley, California, the streets were filled with homeless people with no work. I wanted to know what their lives were really like, so I spent one morning a week for about a year at the Berkeley Jobs Consortium. Each week I helped some homeless, jobless person compose a resume to get work. They shared with me the memoirs of their working lives.
There is, of course, work that’s so hard that almost anyone would welcome not working as a rest from it. There’s work that, as the song by Sweet Honey in the Rock says, brings you more than a pay check—work that brings you asbestosis, perhaps, or carpal tunnel or back injury, or the possibility that you may be shot in the line of duty.
There’s work that does greater injury to the spirit than to the body. I think of the people on the assembly line who become extensions of the machines they operate, who aren’t even allowed to stop their numbing motion long enough to go to the bathroom.
But I also think of how differently people approach the same work. Studs Terkel’s classic book called Working is a collection of interviews of people in nearly every line of work you can think of. Side by side, we see the check-out clerk who hates the job and the one who loves it. We see the woman who waits tables in a restaurant with aching feet and heart hardened by too many encounters with nasty customers—and the waitress who thinks of herself gliding among the restaurant tables as if she were ballet dancing.
When I lived in Tampa, Florida, I learned the history of the cigar factories in the section of town called Ybor City. The people who sat in long rows rolling cigars saw their work as an art. Many could not read, but they listened all day to a highly revered “lector” (reader) who sat on a high platform and read to them not only the newspapers but also the literary classics. The lector was among the highest esteemed personages in the community, and the factory owners, who didn’t speak Spanish, wiped out the system when they caught on that the lectors were reading from communist newspapers and organizing the workers.
You may know the story of the three stone masons. Someone asks them what they are doing. The first one scowls and says: “I am laboring to break up this unbreakable rock.” The second smiles and says: “I am earning a living for my family.” The third stands up and puffs out his chest. “I am building a great cathedral for the glory of God,” he says. We had better beware of hastily condemning some work as demeaning and lifting up other work as honorable.
For good or for ill, many of us regard work as a kind of self-definition. Dorothee Sölle says that joblessness is a form of excommunication—being prevented from the communication that matters. Made solitary when we are not made to be solitary. It isn’t true only of people who are fired or laid off. It may be true of people who retire as well.
My father worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber for forty years before he retired. He knew nothing but his work and golf. He lived twenty more years, and golf became increasingly less fun for his aging body. He spent more and more time in front of the television set. I urged him to write his memoirs. Young business people could learn so much from his stories of corporate life. But he never did it. Sometimes I wish he had found himself in the unemployment line in his mid-40s.
But I hasten to say that retirement need not be like his. Not working, for whatever reason, need not be like it was for him. I also have in my memory’s eye my partner Alan, in the years when he was no longer able to work but before Agent Orange and PTSD finally took their toll on him.
Alan had been a salesman after he returned from Vietnam. He could sell anything, and over the years just about did—pole barns, jewelry, advertising, shark jaws, pistols, pieces of eight. I believe he could have sold the Brooklyn Bridge if he had tried. I used to
listen to him on the phone, taking care of business. Never hurried, never out of sorts, no matter how he was feeling, no matter what kind of day it had been.
That was his “working.” His “not working” was sitting on the dock, fishing, or not fishing. Or taking the canoe up the Santa Fe River before the sun went down. Maybe checking for the manatee at the mouth of the Ichetucknee River. Or having a ride in the old blue pick-up to Pope’s Store, checking on the neighborhood. “Come on,” he would say, “I want to show you something.” And up at the corner, we would sit in the darkness and watch hundreds of lightning bugs. There was very little talking. Alan, those last years at the river, was able to just be.
Ram Dass says if you focus on doing instead of being, you burn out. It isn’t the nature of the work that burns you out. If you regard your work as an experiment in truth, you do not burn out. Ram Dass also says you can work on yourself anywhere. You can work on yourself as easily at the phone company as at the ashram.
When I finally got a job after my six months of unemployment, I wrote about tax law for a legal publishing company. For the first time in my working life, I didn’t take any work home. I started at 8:00 a.m. and left at 4:00 p.m., and I got to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge twice a day—in the opposite direction from all the traffic. If anybody ever tells you this life doesn’t put temptation in our paths, don’t you believe it. You understand—I abhor tax law, and I was making what felt like about five cents a month. But what did that matter?
It turned out to matter a great deal that the work didn’t give me any obstacles to overcome. It didn’t give me any resistance so that I could feel the strength of my being push against anything. It didn’t bring me forth.
I compared my working life with that of my friend David, living on his old boat in the Sausalito harbor. He really did make very little money in his landscaping business. He would say when he got into somebody’s yard, he felt like a musician getting ready to perform. He always wanted to get to know the people, to find out what colors and textures would reflect their style. David died a few years ago, but my memories of him are still fresh. I can still picture him there, spending hours every day engaging people in conversation over coffee at the Café Trieste, walking along the docks and speaking to people as he went. He was one of the happiest people I ever knew.
The Book of Genesis would have us believe that work is our punishment for disobeying God, and that when we were banished from Eden we were doomed to labor. But some contemporary theologians say no, not so. Rather, the creation of the world is not finished, but continues day by day, and we are co-creators with God. Well, I don’t know about either theory. But I know that my father was cursed in his not working, and my friend David was blessed in both his working and his not working.
And I know that some of the most important work we do nobody pays us a penny for. All the volunteering. All the work of the church. I know that the hard work we do on ourselves does not burn us out—the work to know ourselves, to make our relationships healthy, the grief work, the work to free ourselves from phobia or addiction. “It may be,” as Wendell Berry says, “that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”
It doesn’t matter whether we are working or not working, or not working any more. There is work for us all to do that is worthy, and we are all worthy of the work.