What thoughts and emotions come to mind when you hear the word, work? It seems to me that our larger culture associates ideas of sacrifice, duty, and even misery with the term. “Thank God it’s Friday” and “I hate Mondays” are common sayings that reflect the basic idea that work is something we have to do.
Pope John Paul II has thoughtfully conceived of work differently. It is helpful that he views the idea from two different angles. Objective work is the output or result of our labor, such as paper clips, a polished floor, or the purchase of hedge funds. Subjective work relates to the impact on the individual worker. Of course, anything that is subjective is harder to measure, but John Paul’s point is that there is freedom in it. No matter what we do to earn a living, we have a choice in how we view that work.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is the first novel by David Wroblewski. It is a gripping tale marked by betrayal, murder, and ghosts. In fact, it has been called a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in rural Wisconsin. But I am interested in its understanding of work. The Sawtelle family is in the business of breeding dogs. Their objective work relates to these amazing dogs, meticulously bred for the very best traits. Through extensive record keeping, the family produces litter after litter of healthy, smart, obedient, and trainable pups who grow up to become the best hunting dogs in the state.
Their subjective work, however, seems to be more than just a bond between the dogs and their breeders. The child, Edgar, was born unable to speak; yet he communicates with the dogs. By working with them in the rigors of training, he learns their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. As a result, he discovers an inner strength in himself, which he taps into in order to overcome adversity. Such subjective effects cannot be recorded in notebooks, but the impact on Edgar’s life is immeasurably profound.
Recently, I worked with a group of high school students gathered for the Jeremiah Project during the Montreat Youth Conference. Some of our tasks were measurable, such as the scripture we studied, the skits we performed, and the liturgy that we wrote. However, I hope that these activities will teach them something about themselves. The project is named after Jeremiah because, when the Lord calls him to be a prophet, he protests by claiming that he is too young. God, however, tells him to not be afraid (Jer 1:4-8). The teenagers noticed that the real issue at stake was not age, but fear. As Edgar Sawtelle learned to overcome his fear through his work with dogs, I pray that youth can to the same through their work in the church. Such work would be less about what they do, and more about the who they are. As John Bell of the Iona Community reminds us, Christ said: “Don’t be afraid; my love is stronger; my love is stronger than your fear.”