Posted by: Brian Musser | November 14, 2012

Finding Still Waters: Cultural Influences Creating Work as a Moral Good

Thursday 11/15 (tomorrow evening) 6 – 7:30 PM in the in The new “CEO LEADership Lab” (formerly Conference Room D).  I will be leading a CEO workshop Finding Still Waters: Intentional Rest from Good Work as a Needed Spiritual Exercise.  Many of us at Drexel are highly motivated to accomplish and achieve finding great value in the work we do and are preparing to do.  The meaningfulness of our work can at times lead us to be reluctant to stop accomplishing and achieving, pushing ourselves beyond healthy boundaries.  In this workshop we will discuss:  When is it not only physically necessary to rest but also spiritually good, the spiritual value of intentional rest from work, and how to rest well.  The following is from my preparation.

At Drexel there is a high respect for hard work and those who work hard.  Keeping an intense schedule and pace is almost a prerequisite to being successful at this University.  The standard was set by our former University President,  late Constatine Papadakis and is maintained by a current one John Fry.  You can see it in the work ethic and dedication of the Drexel staff and administration.  I get to watch it most closely within Drexel University student life.  This work ethic is passed on to our students.  Hard work is a cultural norm at Drexel.  It is not only the way things are but it has become more than that.  Hard work has become a moral good.  It is the way things should be.  You “ought” to be working hard.

As I have been spending considerable time discussing the theology of work here on this blog and on my other blog specifically designated for the conversation (Work-Ship), I would agree that work and even hard work is something we should be doing.  We should expend our energy and effort to accomplish good. However, I endorse it with two reservations.  Work itself is not always necessarily good.  We need to be conscience of the morality of what we are doing.   Secondly, work is good but we cannot infer that its opposite, rest, is therefore bad.  Work is good but only in proper balance with rest.

Today, I want to explore some reasons why work is viewed in such a positive light.  Come of these will be cultural and others will be more personal.  (Later we will diagnose the problem of what happens to our concept of rest if and when work is elevated as a good beyond its proper position.  In another post I plan on establish the idea of rest as a spiritual good.  I will also give some helpful hints as how to rest well.  Although I was originally planning on posting a series based on last night’s discussion, last night’s discussion was recorded and first I will probably post the link and/or video to it instead. )  As I have been thinking along these lines, I have come across four phenomena that elevate the value of work.  I want to be careful to make sure that I am not misunderstood at this point.  None of these four phenomena are wrong individually or collectively.  There is nothing wrong with having a high value of work.  (For some of us I think we need to elevate our view of work.)  The issue is not how these phenomena impact our view of work.  It is how our view of worth has impacted our view of rest.

1.  An Existing Cultural Norm Described as a “Good Work Ethic.”

There are terms within our culture such as “protestant work ethic” or the “American work ethic.”  These describe a cultural norm that work is not only necessary but is morally good.  You become a good American by being a good worker.  Part of being a good protestant Christian includes working hard.  You “should” work.  Hard work is something you “ought” to do.  That idea definitely exist in our culture and un-exaggerated it may not even be wrong.  Work does have its important place.  I do hesitate to so closely associate hard work with a specific culture.  Hard work is not just an American or protestant Christian concept.  Working at Drexel, I have seen this same work ethic in Russian, Chinese, Indian and Moroccan students.  Hard work is valued in most cultures.  Working in such a way as to support yourself and your family or even your society as a whole is an important and ubiquitous concept.  This work ethic does take a deeper step into our conscience when we use Scriptural texts to support it.  I know as a protestant Christian I have often hard and have even used Paul’s quote, “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.”  to elevate the cultural value of work.  These religious and cultural concepts have elevated the morality of work.

Have ever felt a sense of guilt when you were not working?

Have you ever been present when the word lazy was used to describe a culture group that were viewed as inferior?

2.  The ease at which we can tangibly display value through work.

My father spent his professional career as a jeweler, watch and clock repairman.  At the end of the day he had a tangible way to measure the value of the day.  On good days he accomplished a lot and his “To Do” box was basically empty.  On bad days his box stayed full and he only was able to accomplish on or two repairs.  Work often gives us a very tangible way to measure success.  This tangible nature gives us an easy way to see our value.  There is a sidewalk in Mexico that I built.  There is an article in a magazine that I wrote.  Most of us would admit that we are valuable outside of what we do.  We have worth just because of who we are that is not dependent upon what we have done.  However, having something to directly point to that we have done gives us a sens of value that is more apparent and easier to connect with.  Work can be an easy way to communicate value and this elevates the “goodness” of work.

Have you ever gained a sense of importance because of the work you have done?

3.  The ease at which we can measure relative value through competition in work.

Work has the ability to give us a sense of uniqueness and value.  If I ma able to do certain things, especially if others are not able to do them, then I find myself more valuable.  If I am successful in my job, I should be better at it than most people.  I may not have an internal sense of self-worth but I can judge my worth on relative value with others.  Most of us again would agree that each human being has worth no matter how they compare to others but competition within the realm of work can be an easy way to sense that worth.  My view of work is elevated if I find I gain a sense of self-worth through it.  I often learn who I am in comparison to others and that comparison is easy in the world of work.  I am not saying that our sense of self-worth “should” be located outside of ourselves in the realm of what we do for work.  I am just saying that it is easy to see in the realm of work.

Have you ever gained a sense of self-worth because you were able to do something better than others?

4.  Work is one of the few controllable predictors of success.

Allow me to use a sports metaphor:  NFL is a highly competitive occupation.  Many teams are fairly well balanced with athletic talent.  Many coaches have relatively similar resources available to them.  Many games are decided by random factors and events during the game that could not have been predicted.  The one thing in a coach’s control is how hard the individuals associated with his team work.  And because of that we hear of stories of coaches sleeping at the office and working 90+ hours a week.  Most coaches wear this type of a schedule as a badge of honor.  If you are a fan you expect your coach to work this way.   We can control how hard we work.  Hard work often helps facilitate success.  The harder you work the more likely success will be.  Our view of work is elevated because it can directly lead to our success.

Have you ever assumed that the best way to prevent failure in a certain situation is to work as hard as possible?

Have you ever assumed someone failed because they were not working hard enough?

When we combine our cultural “work ethic” with how work allows us to see value in what we have done and how we compare to others and lastly add a dose of control to the amount of success we have based on our effort we can see how this is a recipe for creating a very high view of work.  Sometimes our view of work exceeds its natural boundaries and becomes too high.  A view of work that is too high can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle.  Next time we talk about this (hopefully tomorrow), I want to evaluate the problem with our view of work being too high and look at how our view of work affects our view of rest.



  1. […] Finding Still Waters: Cultural Influences Creating Work as a Moral Good. […]

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