A Worker’s Prayer: On the Meaning of Work



A Worker’s Prayer: On the Meaning of Work

It’s been five months since I quit teaching.  For three months I worked forty hours at Starbucks and read a lot: Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings,  Psalms, Surprised by Joy, Letters to a Young Poet.  It’s been almost two months since I started work at a call center; forty hours there, twenty hours at Starbucks.  I had hoped to work two jobs through Christmas, but when I got home one day and couldn’t stop crying, I gave my two-weeks at Starbucks.  So now both familiar jobs, teaching and Starbucks, the ones that supported me in grad school, France, and when I returned to Louisville, are gone.

The reasons I’ve left these jobs are money and writing.  I can’t complain about money, really.  I have enough for rent and small luxuries, but not enough to save, travel, or buy my own car.  You say, “Ah, so give up the small luxuries!” but what is life without chocolate, the occasional hamburger, and new gloves?  My money problems are not grave, but as I approach thirty, it seems unwise to live month-to-month with no car, little savings, and intermittent health insurance.  It also seems unwise to teach writing when I am unable to write.  It’s wonderful to introduce students to poetry and learn from their perspectives, but I’ve found that planning and grading take all my creative energy, so that reading and writing, the things I love, the things I want my students to love, become chores for me, and outside of class I avoid them as much as possible.  It’s as if I’m serving God and mammon, and I begin to hate teaching.

The thing is, I went to school seven years and taught and worked at Starbucks five years.  Where do you go from there?  Of the many possibilities, which one is right?  If I’m uncertain what to do, my instinct is to stay as still as possible, read novels, and drink copious amounts of tea.  


But as my Aunt Ev pointed out, “In order for God to direct your steps, you have to take a step.”

So the call center is a step.  And this blog is a step.  And I pray that God will lead me because I have no idea what I’m doing.

Many of my friends are in similar situations.  Alia went to school for radiology and works at a restaurant.  Erin loves her family, but wonders sometimes if her work as a housewife is meaningful.  Laura studied literature and coordinated events for NYU, but she’s living at home now, tutoring online.  We have a lot of questions about work, and I suspect many people share them.

The main questions as I see them are, first, “Where should work fit in our lives?” My tendency is to throw all time and energy into it, but this becomes an excuse for laziness in community, and it’s not healthy long-term.  How can balance be achieved?  Second, “Should our self-worth be dependent on work?”  The titles of Waitress, Housewife, and Tutor do not fully define my friends; Call Center Representative does not define me.  But is it any better to define ourselves as Mother or Writer and judge our worth by our children’s or poems’ success?  Third, “What does it mean to ‘lose your life to gain it’ and ‘seek first the kingdom of God’?”


Sometimes I want to become a nun or missionary or start a not-for-profit pancake stand downtown, but the kingdom of God seems (usually) to call for patient, quiet pursuit more than for dramatic decisions.

 How do we lose our lives and seek God’s kingdom in call centers, cubicles, homes, and factories?  How do we run the race without sprinting and trudging in turns?  How do we live well for the glory of God?

I hope to explore these questions by writing about artists’ views on work, reviewing self-help books, and interviewing fellow believers about work.  Maybe we can’t figure it out exactly; maybe that’s the point of faith; but we can lend each other courage and perspective as we seek to live well in Christ.

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Deanna Boulard lives in Louisville, and delights in windows, Bach, and marmalade.  She has her MFA from the University of Maryland and worked as a language assistant in southern France.  Sometimes she has flashbacks of her favorite views, which make it hard to see what’s in front of her.  She would like to live every day aware that “the present is the point at which time touches eternity.”





11 Responses to “A Worker’s Prayer: On the Meaning of Work”

  1. Susan says:

    You have described my life, my heart. I am in the position of your friend Erin and wondering what to do with the uncertainty, the unused part of who I am. So many people around me seemed to define themselves by what they do and I know I want something different.

    • Deanna says:

      Thank you for your response, Susan. I sometimes think it’s impossible to not be entirely defined by what we do, but I believe our instinct is right; there’s something more here!

    • Gavin says:

      I firmly believe that the position of mom/housewife is the most ignored and underrated “job” in our society. The raising of children is a huge responsibility, and anyone who doesn’t value it should be ashamed of themselves. The children being raised are the future of our communities…

      Existential crises hit so many of us at some point. Leave it in God’s hands, and keep taking step by step, that’s my advice :)

  2. Stephanie says:

    Thank you! This reflection spoke to me in so many ways. I think there are so many our age who find themselves wondering about those very questions you raise. I recently decided to live in community at the catholic worker in Louisville in an attempt to answer some of those questions for myself. You should come check it some time. There are potlucks every thursday at 6pm. Bring a dish to share! Everyone is welcome. Find us on woodbine and Floyd st. In old Louisville next to the st. Philip neri chapel. In the meantime keep writing. I love your stuff!

  3. Ben says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for sharing. I also am nearly thirty, have no savings, and have no idea what I am doing. If the point of writing is to make others feel less alone, then you have succeeded.

    Ben

  4. Rebekah says:

    Deanna, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Reading it I was reminded of a passage from Northrop Frye’s The Double Vision:

    “Revolutions, however, are culturally sterile: they weaken the traditions of the past but put nothing in their place except second-rate versions of the same thing. I think the real longing is not for a mass movement sweeping up individual concerns, but for an individualized movement reaching out to social concerns. Primary concerns, that is: food, shelter, the greening of the earth, and their spiritual aspects of freedom and equal rights.”

    Society wants us to define our worth based on our work. Jobs are ranked according to social prestige and the income they generate. If we fall short of our socially conceived work potential, ranking lower on the scale, then we have somehow failed. This is a rather hopeless vision of work’s place in our lives. Do we need to rise up against this socio-political system to re-claim our individual worth? Frye suggests that any political revolt will only lead us back to the same problem of being defined by our function as a cog in the social machine. Instead, authentic resistance occurs within the minds of individuals. The human creative imagination that produces literature, poetry, and music allows us to envision worlds where we are valued for what Frye calls the spiritual aspects of our lives. Living in these visions, allowing them to educate our desires, enables us to transcend the dominant cultural values, to live in this society but not be of this society.

    I find this theoretically comforting, but am constantly struggling how to live it. I have spend almost half my life in academia working towards becoming an established academic. Currently I am struggling to accept that I may never be an academic (work), but I can still be an intellectual (who I am as a person). How can I be a creative intellectual while engaging in non-academic work? What value do the years I spent studying the humanities possess in connection to work? Reflecting on these questions produces waves of suffocating doubt. The vision of the world and the values I embraced in my research are suddenly mere word-games and fictional constructs that have no grounding in the “real” world. It feels as if I am drowning in these waves of meaninglessness, but then I am reminded that the true power of these word-games and fictional constructs rests in the imagination. The human world we live in is a verbal world, even the dominant cultural system is rooted in a verbal articulation of values and meaning. The imagination gives us the power to create a new vision of the world, a higher or spiritual vision. Frye elsewhere says: “The spiritual or higher air world is not an invisible order independent of the visible one, but an invisibility that enables another kind of reality to appear, a mystery turned into revelation.” Remembering this, allowing it sweep away the gulf of meaninglessness, is when I feel the closest to God. I am reminded that the kingdom of heaven lies within us, and that God has given us this gift of the imagination in order to live in “a mystery turned into revelation.” So how do we incorporate work into this vision? How do we make the space for reading, writing, and playing that allows us live in this spiritual reality? I look forward to reading more about your journey and discussing these questions with you along the way.

    • dave says:

      this is a really profound and vulnerable insight. thanks for being bold enough to share it! i like the frye idea of no seperation.! –dave

  5. Deanna Boulard says:

    A lovely response, Reb. I think that is my main problem too; knowing that the life of the imagination/spirit is everything, should change everything, but feeling a disconnect between that life and my everyday work. How to make the “theoretically comforting” a fact. Well said. Thank you.

  6. Joyce says:

    Life is about God. It’s not about you. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God first and foremost wants us to know Him, to have a relationship with Him, to bring glory to Him by the way we live our lives, by how we relate to Him and others. Summed up best in this scripture passage: “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself”. Matt. 22:37-39. John Thomas
    God is molding us to be like His Son.
    “People are often unreasonable and self-centered, forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives.
    Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway”. Mother Teresa

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