The other day I was talking with someone about her recent trip to Italy. I was nearly moved to tears as she told me of the ancient beauty of the little Italian towns they stayed in. I imagined the narrow streets, farmers markets and local restaurants and suddenly I wanted to purchase a ticket right then and there to go spend a month in Italy and write the days away in a leatherbound journal.
Then she said something profound. “There,” she said, “people work to live. Here in the United States we live to work.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. The first question we ask upon meeting someone is “What do you do?” Rather than “What do you enjoy?” In this culture, we live to work, and as a consequence, so much of our identity becomes entangled in what we do, what we produce, how much we make. In order to feel fulfilled, we need a fulfilling job, a purposeful career, a dazzling Monday through Friday. But what if we can find exquisite happiness in a simple job and a simple life, void of glamour and pomp. What if we sought joy in other things besides our work?
I have grown up in a culture that places an incredibly high value on your career. I went to a school whose sole intent was to get you into a wonderful college so you could in turn graduate and find a fast-paced, high-paying job. There’s nothing wrong with seeking education and excellence, but when your worth is suddenly tied up jn what you bring to the economy, something is wrong.
Sometimes when I’m at the store, I think about the people who run the cash register or the people who load the trucks in the back. They’re doing a job that matters, but it’s not glamourous. Maybe they wish they were somewhere else or that they had pursued more education, but what if they’re not looking for a job to fill them with joy. What if their joy comes from something deeper?
When I open my Bible, I see many passages which talk about living a simple life. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul exhorts us to live a quiet life and to work with our hands so that our lives will win the respect of outsiders.
What If dreaming big dreams was never the goal?
No, I’m not saying that we should live complacent lives and never venture outside our comfort zones, but when you look around the world, this mindset of personal achievement is frankly quite selfish.
In tiny villages in Hondurdas you don’t have the luxury of thinking about what career would fit your personality best. You have mouths to feed and so you work very very very hard to feed them. You may be a farmer or a teacher or a pupusa maker, but if your worth was tied up in your job you would be up a creek!
I quit my job a few months ago, and while I know it was the right thing to do, I wasn’t expecting to struggle so much with what I lost. I had an office, a title, a business card, letters after my name. I was important. It sounds silly when I think about it, but I’ve had to unravel the mindset I’ve adopted that says I am only valuable if I am producing, earning, striving.
As I’ve tried to figure out what I want to do with my life and virtually what I want to be when I grow up, I keep coming back to this biblical framework that Jesus laid out for us. I can’t find a passage in the Bible which encourages us to strive and to build a thriving career and make a name for ourselves. I find so many passages, however, which encourage us to work with our hands and love our neighbors and our families. I see verses about bearing with one another and being generous. So often we are too busy to be kind.
Here’s the question I’m asking myself, if I never find a job that’s absolutely perfect for me and fits me like a glove, can I be happy?
If, by the worlds standards, I never create a name for myself or make a lot of money, will I still have lived a full life?
I want my joy to come from something that’s bigger than forty hours a week. I want every moment of every day to be steeped in purpose and delight. Whatever I do, whether I’m writing or speaking to a group of people or washing dishes or caring for a child or cooking dinner, I want it all to be for the glory of God.
I want stay at home moms to know beyond the shadow of a doubt they are doing something significant with their lives. I want men who work the assembly line a factory to know they are doing good work.
It’s not about the letters after our name or the accolades we amass, it’s about how we approach each moment of the day. Are we choosing grace, kindness, love, humility, excellence?
I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 last week, and the matriarch of the family was looking back on her life and wondering if she had done enough. She thought she could have traveled or had a big job or gone on lots of adventures. Instead she had married young and moved from Greece to the United States with her husband. She suddenly looked around her at all her children and grandchildren and said, “Maybe my adventure was to have a family.”
Maybe our purpose and joy are so hard to find in the workplace because we will not find them there.
Maybe our truest satisfaction can only be found in the people we love and the meals we enjoy around our table and the games of catch we play in our back yard, and the walks around the neighborhood we take with the love of our life.
Maybe that’s where the happiness is. And to think we thought we would find it in a dusty old office.