14 March 2009

The Psychology of Work

The following essay of Archbishop Sheen's is taken from his book Way to Happiness. It can be found on the Cause for Canonization of Archbishop Sheen website together with a reflection on the essay from Fr. Apostoli.


Very few people in this age do the kind of work they like to do. Instead of choosing their jobs freely, they are forced by economic necessity to work at tasks that fail to satisfy them. Many of them say, “I ought to be doing something bigger,” or “This job of mine is only important because I get paid.” Such an attitude lies at the bottom of much unfinished and badly executed work. Those who choose their work because it fulfills a purpose they approve are the only ones who grow in stature by working. They alone can properly say, at the end of it, “It is finished!”

This sense of vocation is sadly lacking nowadays. The blame should not be placed on the complexity of our economic system, but on a collapse of our spiritual values. Any work, viewed in its proper perspective, can be used to ennoble us; but a necessary prelude to seeing this is to understand the philosophy of labor.

Every task we undertake has two aspects – our purpose, which makes us think it worth doing, and the work itself, regarded apart from its end–purpose. We play tennis to get exercise; but we play the game as well as possible, just for the joy of doing the thing well. The man or woman who argued that he or she could get as much exercise by sloppy technique on the courts would have missed an nderstanding of the second aspect of all activity: the accomplishment of the task in accordance with its own standards of excellence.

In the same way, someone working in an automobile factory may have, as his primary purpose, the earning of wages; but the purpose of the work itself is the excellent completion of the task. A worker should be aware of the second purpose at all times – as the artist is aware of the aim of beauty in his or her painting and the housekeeper is aware of the need for neatness when cleaning.

Today the first aspect of working has become paramount, and we tend to ignore the second, so that many workers lead half-lives in their laboring hours. They are like gardeners, ordered to grow cabbage to give them sauerkraut juice, but indifferent as to whether their plots are weeded properly or their cabbages are healthy vegetables. This is a mistaken attitude. God Himself worked when He made the world and then, viewing it, He called it “good”.

Legitimate pride in doing work well relieves it of much of its drudgery. Some people, who have held to this craftsman’s standard, get a thrill from any job they do. They know the satisfaction of “a job well done” whether they are engaged in caning a chair or cleaning a horse’s stall or carving a statue for a cathedral. Their honor and their self-respect are heightened by the discipline of careful work. They have retained the old attitude of the Middle Ages, when work was a sacred event, a ceremony, a source of spiritual merit. Labor was not then undertaken merely for the sake of economic gain, but was chosen through an inner compulsion, through a desire to project the creative power of God through our own human effort.

(Excerpt from: Way to Happiness)

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