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Reflecting on the Dignity of Work in Plague Times

The rising unemployment numbers in the United States, which are the natural consequence of an economic shutdown, brought the American middle class to its knees. Ten million (and growing) Americans were laid off in a short span of just two weeks. Individuals applying for unemployment insurance were told that it would take weeks to receive their first paychecks. These were the numbers that flashed every morning in the daily news cycle, and to my mind, the suffering encountered by those unemployed remained largely a number, a value void of any human sentiment.

My gut instinct and religious upbringing told me to feel compassion for and sympathy toward those less fortunate, but I couldn’t summon those elementary human feelings. I went about my day as any ordinary day, ignoring this far flung reality, perhaps the preservation of my peaceful state of being. It was not until the self-induced fantasy transformed into an everyday reality, arrived at the doorsteps of my own family, that I realized the magnitude of its destruction to the human soul.

As a self-employed dry-cleaning mechanic, my father exclusively works when an owner of a dry cleaner calls him requesting urgent repairs on one of the company’s machines. The calls vary in degree throughout the week, but the regularity is such that the mortgage and all other financial costs are paid on time. With the mandated closure of nearly all corporate establishments, the dry cleaning industry fell apart due to the lack of professionals needing to have their formal work clothes pressed and ironed.

Although a few during this time will continue to dress up at home when teleworking to maintain a certain level of dignity or at least give the appearance of working in the office, it remains the case that almost three full weeks have passed since my father received a work call. Every morning he would wake up and do the activities he routinely carried out prior to heading out for work: eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, and smoking an early cigarette in our backyard garden. Once lunchtime rolled around, he would step out of the house in his plain work clothes, with his tools in hand, and stay out until it was time for dinner. It was obvious that no work was required of him, yet he flawlessly conducted himself in this detailed manner every day. I asked myself: why does he maintain this daily habit? Why pretend to work if no work is to be done?

For many individuals, work is merely a means to obtain the necessary funds to pay the mortgage, buy the groceries, and allow one’s kids to receive a decent education. Some will find that their earthly vocations give an indescribable sense of purpose and meaning that no leisurely activity could provide. The blood that gushes forth from one’s hands by aggressively working a tool, the sweat that seeps from one’s body by the intense labor and the outdoor heat, and the salty tears flowing down one’s cheek from the pain of the arduous work bring a satisfaction to the human soul unique to our own.

In light of my father’s habits, I began to question the relationship between man and his labor: does man simply work to provide the means to live for his household, or does he engage in work for its own sake?

Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, wrote, “To labor is to exert oneself for the sake of procuring what is necessary for the various purposes of life, and chief of all for self-preservation.” He explains that man, as an active agent of the economy, works first and foremost to provide food for his family and a roof over the house and to earn the wages he is owed to survive. This is “a law of nature, which it is wrong to disobey.”

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, addresses the second part of my question: “From the beginning therefore he [man] is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.”

Here, John Paul the Great distinguishes the difference between the animal kingdom and the human race. He clarifies that when the former seeks out food and shelter for its own or the tribe in which it belongs, this is not classified as work as humans define it. Why is this the case? When “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them,” God granted the human race the “particular mark” of continuing his creation story through the works of our hands, which first began with God creating the “heavens and the earth.” When man invents a machine, fixes a part, or brings new life to this earth, he is actively partaking in the divine economy. As mentioned earlier, to dismiss our working nature is to go against the law of nature itself. One can deduce that it is in our DNA to work.

In enforcing shutdowns, state governments laid forth their interpretation, to a varying but broadly uniform degree, of what constitutes as “essential” services: businesses vital to a basic functioning economy (finance, food establishments, health services, government) and worthy to remain open and continue to operate in the midst of a public health crisis. This verdict issued an unwarranted death sentence to the vast array of work considered “non-essential.” The barber you visit twice a month, the waiter you often see at your favorite local restaurant, and the bartender who mixes that perfect cocktail all fall under this category.

Although the public must accept this differentiation to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, we must not forget the fundamental truth that all work is “essential,” for it gives dignity to our humanity and purpose to our lives and fulfills our God-given nature to “find joy in the fruits of [our] toil.”

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