The modern world feels a bit empty spiritually. There aren’t the same rewards at the end of a hard days work. Seemingly there aren’t as many hard days work to go around. Certainly the results of work seem much less spectacular. About a month ago I heard a line from a song that stuck in my head.
“I wish I was a slave to an age old trade. Like riding around in rail cars and working long days. Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.” The Head and the Heart: Down in the Valley
The aesthetics of this song resonate with the sentiments of those aching for a more meaningful life but let’s parse through those lofty aspirations.
One might find spare change strewn across the sidewalk, one might even find a hundred dollars, but it is not wise to count on money always being lost on the sidewalk. The same goes for work, albeit with qualifications. One might find satisfaction in work, one might find spiritual meaning, but it is unwise to count on it. When one thinks of a spiritual satisfaction in work one often thinks of the great successes in history. Great men who found their calling. For every success story there are a hundred one of mere content and thousand more of abject failure and misery. People who find meaning in work are usually of three types. People who don’t have to worry about working for a living. People who make great material sacrifice to pursue there desires. People who are both quite good at what they do and whose pursuits are lucrative. Obviously there are people who fit all or some combination of these archetypes but I believe they are sufficient. For most people their meaning in their lives is derived elsewhere.
What people confuse is the satisfaction and pride of doing your best work ( something anyone can do ) as opposed to the satisfaction of doing work with personal significance ( a rarer quality to find). Certainly there are degrees of meaning people can find in work, and one man’s hell may be another’s perfect job but work is not the end all of life. Family, friendship, community those are the things people find value in. This may be a platitude but it is one which has served us well enough. It is ironic that those same people who claim to pine for spiritual work so desperately cling to a materialistic meaning for life. Capitalism offers no meaning because it is simply an aspect of human society. There is nothing innate in capitalism which should or shouldn’t offer meaning. If you criticize capitalism for being spiritually empty it is little different from criticizing breathing for being spiritually empty. Capitalism is simply a system which allows complex societies to function, if it is spiritually empty it is because the population is spiritually empty not anything in the nature of the process itself. If it is cold and meaningless it is the people who are living cold and meaningless lives. Modernity has thoroughly confirmed what anyone could have told you a millennia ago: that people are broken sinners, when left unguided they wander. When wandering they tend to do what they want in an increasingly byzantine manner. Capitalism is scary simply because it tends to give people what they want. Giving people what they need, or better yet telling them how to get what they need is another matter entirely.
As to the slave part, there is honor is serving a worthy cause or person. Unfortunately there are very few people worthy of serving these days and even fewer looking for servants, apprentices etc. Even trades seem less and less common. There are few jobs which capitalize on mastery. Skill, intelligence and knowledge are important, but the push for ever fresher capital and laborers rewards not the patient and dedicated. Even trade jobs which used to require much more mastery are moving attempting to reduce the amount of skill involved. Whether it is our culture, currency or environment we are constantly pushing for increasing productivity from less experienced workers. This raises wages across the board but punishes those who invested too much time in one skill (though experience is still valued to a point). Seemingly experience becomes a signal of being vetted by the industry rather than mastery.
This world was not created to fulfill your desires. It was not created for pleasure or leisure. We are living in a short respite from the toil of man. That some men may enjoy their work is meaningless. You are owed nothing. Certainly some of this false nostalgia is a yearning for related aesthetics from a saner time. Like anything worth having sanity, like good work, is something that is earned, struggled for and won again and again day by day. Certainly there are times when the battle was much easier to fight, but do not be mistaken there is no end to the road to civilization. Greatness is not a badge to be worn but a process and a rite which must be practiced and honed with great care and deference.
There are differences and problems in modern society but let me offer this challenge. If you do not find your work meaningful you probably.
1. Are not rich enough to pursue your ends without concern for your means.
2. Are not willing to sacrifice materially to pursue your ends.
3. Are not good at your ideal profession or have picked one which is not lucrative.
If you are not willing or able to change any of these things and still seek spiritual fulfillment then I humbly suggest you go to church.