My conception of “good work” arose largely in reaction to my parents’ work. When I was thirteen, my mother took a job in a pickle factory to help pay my tuition to a Catholic girl’s academy. It was truly a “job.” For eight hours a day she stood ankle deep in red rubber boots in a pool of gray water, hosing down cucumbers. I sometimes visited my mother at lunchtime. At noon, Sam Wachsburg, the factory’s owner, would blow a plastic whistle. The women workers would scramble up a staircase to a small room, no bigger than a pantry. There, they’d squeeze against one another on a small bench, pull out their lunch sacks, and eat. They had to be fast. The whistle blew again promptly at 12:30, and it was back to work. The whole scene filled me with a combination of anger and shame.
My father also did manual labor. He drove a truck for forty years, rising at 3:30 in the morning to beat the traffic on the crowded New York-New Jersey highways. Once, he took me to his office, where his boss, the nephew of the company’s owner, chewed him out for being a few minutes late. My father silently eyed his shoes as his boss continued the tirade. I couldn’t have been more than five or six, but I remember vowing to myself that I would never let anyone treat me like that. Education would be my ticket out. Work, for me, would be something meaningful and exciting. “The use of all one’s talents in the pursuit of excellence in a life affording scope” is how the Greeks defined happiness. That is what work would be for me.
My wish seemed to come true when, at the end of my senior year of college, the Washington Post hired me for a summer internship. My parents drove me to Washington in their beat-up Chevy Caprice. The Watergate scandal had made the paper famous; the Post represented every young journalist’s dream job. I was one of only two interns who didn’t come from an Ivy League school (I had graduated from tiny St. Peter’s College, a Jesuit liberal arts school), so I pushed myself to be the best. At the end of the summer, I was one of only two interns the Post asked to stay on. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I threw my heart and soul into my work. I worked late nights and on weekends because I loved what I was doing. The problem was, all I did was work. I had no life. In my seventh year at the Post, I was hospitalized for exhaustion, malnutrition, and acute anemia. I was miserable and didn’t know why. I was so clueless then; I thought my happiness would lie in getting an even better job with an even bigger newspaper. And I soon got my wish.
The Wall Street Journal, then the largest newspaper in the country, wanted to hire me. I was assigned to the Chicago bureau and worked with many fine journalists. But I soon lapsed into the same pattern, staying later than everyone else at the office, working weekends and holidays. Leaving the office around eight o’clock one Friday night in July, I spotted a street festival just a few blocks from the Journal office. A band played, people were dancing. I thought about stopping by but realized I’d look ridiculous lugging along my work files and wearing my dress-for-success clothes. So I went home and spent the evening alone. Even when I had plans, I let work intervene. I remember purchasing tickets to see Rudolf Nureyev dance. News broke on my beat the night of the ballet, so I missed that performance. I bought tickets for the next night. Same thing happened. On the last night of the performance, I again bought tickets. It was a Sunday evening, and a colleague and I were working on a front-page story for the next day’s paper. When I said I was taking off early for the ballet, my colleague asked incredulously, “You’re not going to leave now, are you?” So I stayed. I never got to see Nureyev dance in Chicago, or anywhere else. He died not long afterward.
I now look upon the day of my layoff as a kind of second birthday. My sense of identity no longer depends on what I do for a living, which is why the Hopkins poem resonates so deeply with me now. Just as kingfishers catch the light, dragonfly wings draw color, and tongs ring out the voice of bells, each person has a purpose to fulfill. That purpose is to reach the being that “inmost dwells,” as Hopkins put it: our true and genuine self. Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow is the title of a popular book. Joseph Campbell would say, “Follow your bliss.” That doesn’t mean that everyone gets to work at his or her dream job. Hopkins himself struggled over his twin vocations as priest and poet. He thought one detracted from the other, and at one point even burned all his extant poems. “Slaughter of the innocents,” he called it. He fretted over ever leaving anything of substance behind. “Birds buildÑbut not I build,” he wrote toward the end of his life. He called himself “Time’s eunuch,” who could “not breed one work that wakes.” Yet Hopkins found consolation in the life of Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit lay brother, who had worked as a doorkeeper. Alphonsus was eventually declared a saint, but his sainthood, Hopkins says in a poem, was not “flashed off exploit.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what work we do. As Alphonsus proved, any job can become a vocation.
So often I hear of people who decide at midlife to leave their profession to go into some form of church work. To me, that narrows the definition of vocation. All work can be a form of ministry. (When Charley was state’s attorney of McLean County, Illinois, he regularly referred to his work as chief prosecutor as ministry.)
Hopkins, good Jesuit that he was, firmly believed that all work, diligently and honestly performed, gives glory to God. Meditating on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he wrote: “Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty. . . . To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should.”
When I think of my parents now, I realize they were successful. Perhaps not as the world defines success, but in the sense that they worked hard, raised their family, made ends meet, and lived honorable lives. My mother was a generous friend to the women she worked with. My father, when he owned his own truck, could have hired family members or friends to work with him. Instead, he gave jobs to men who needed them, often African Americans. In the 1940s and 1950s, my father was an equal opportunity employer before it became the law.
Another great Jesuit thinker, Teilhard de Chardin, saw our work in the world as carrying on the work of creation. He wrote: “We may perhaps imagine that creation was finished long ago. But that would be quite wrong. It continues still more magnificently, and at the highest levels of the world. . . . We serve to complete it, even by the humblest work of our hands.”
“The humblest work of our hands.” I love that thought. It reminds me that our real work is the work of compassion, of creativity, of leaning into the mystery that is found in each life. Whatever job we do, we can make it a work of the heart.