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Christine Jeske

100x100 Christine JeskeA Reminder Of What Work Is For

Christine Jeske, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Anthropology

As I read a certain passage in Norman Wirzba’s Agrarian Spirit, my mind kept interrupting to make this not about food, as Wirzba wrote it, but about my own job as a professor. Here’s what he wrote, with my bracketed interruptions:

One of the hallmarks of modernity is the growth of bureaucratic (and often alienating) institutions that increasingly take the place of personal networks of care and support. The result is that the meaning of the “stuff” of life changes. A meal [or a class], for instance, rather than being a declaration of another’s concern and love for you, now signifies as a package of calories [or credits] or a unit of fuel [or credentials] that reflects someone else’s business interest in you. But a further result is that the patterns and goals of our engagement with others also change if the ‘voice’ at the other end of the line is a robotic or machine-generated voice [which is how we often felt teaching online during the pandemic, and how I I imagine my students see me as they stare glassy-eyed and under slept mid-semester]. We should not be surprised that transactions are now increasingly handled by computers and algorithms … because impersonality has been the operating assumption of contractual ways of living from the beginning. When you are shopping at a store [or taking a course, or working alongside a colleague], there is no reason to say, “Thank you!” to the checkout machine on your way out the door.[1]

This is not a complaint about my job—I am grateful to be among the small percentage of people in the world who actually find their job satisfying and fitting to a calling. But I write this because I know too much about how thin the line is between loving and hating a job. For the half decade leading up to the 2020 pandemic unemployment crisis and then the Great Resignation of 2021, I had been researching workplace satisfaction. I talked with people who had what they called “a job-because-you-need-a-job kind of job,” jobs like digging holes to fill with saplings and poisonous chemicals, or lifting a thousand yogurt tubs a day from conveyor belt to rack. I talked with people who quit jobs even when doing so meant their children would surely go hungry. I spent a long time asking myself, and God, and everyone I met, “What makes work—and life itself—good?”

What I learned first of all is that the answer is not pay. Pay is a fickle thing upon which to judge a job, or worse yet, our own worth. Yet we get this wrong all the time. We assume you can put a dollar value on the contribution a human makes to the world. We make into a commodity something that will never make sense as a commodity.

Case in point. Years ago I spent some weeks traveling around the country speaking at colleges and churches and small groups about a book I had written, and at the end I realized I’d given nearly the same quality of talk in every place, but my pay ranged from lemonade and cookies to over a thousand bucks (which to me, newly returned from South Africa, felt like way too much money for an hour-long event). Pay makes no sense, especially if you think it measures the value of work, or humans, or life.

Here’s another case in point. During the CACE seminar, we spent a day in ninety-degree heat practicing “experiential learning” on Tiffany Kriner’s farm. We stapled wire to a chicken shelter, dragged electric fencing through woods, and stretched plastic between trees to smother weeds. The pay for this doesn’t make sense either. Yes, CACE gave us a stipend for attending this seminar, but I don’t think any of us thought of ourselves as working out there for pay. And yes, we got a lot done, but I don’t think any of us felt that the purpose was just about what we accomplished. There was something richer happening, a giving and receiving and mutual transformation. The value flowed through the conversations between wiping sweat from our faces, in becoming a small part of a place that is home to humans and creatures of all sorts, and in savoring smells and tastes together in full awareness of our place and each other.

Meanwhile people across the world do similar work of digging and hauling and picking and planting, often in conditions far harder on their bodies, and they do so for barely enough to drag their bodies back the next day. And in many of those settings, all the un-priced benefits of relationship and savoring and place-making are also stripped away. We justify this destruction of life and meaning by saying it is all about supply and demand—if someone will work for cheaper, why should we pay more, and in the end it will all work out, won’t it? So we buy and sell hours of our lives and strength of our bodies, taste and happiness and fertility of land, and we pretend that the money we exchange for these things makes sense. But pay, the prices we use to measure value of these things, can never make sense.

The problem, as Wirzba and a chorus of people from my own discipline of anthropology have been singing for a long time now, is that some things were never meant to be exchanged in contractual exchanges. Contractual exchanges are a system humans made where prices are negotiated for discrete atomized items are negotiated among competing buyers and sellers. When a contractual exchange is finished, we can walk away and never speak again. This system gets a lot accomplished, and it works just fine for a lot of things. But sometimes we assume that it’s the only system out there, and sometimes Christians even add a certain terror to the conversation by implying that surely without this system we will all become communists running gulags.

But we use other exchange systems all the time. When we eat Thanksgiving dinners, we don’t pay each other for the mashed potatoes and gravy—we come to share, and we share because we belong, and that belonging lasts a lifetime. When we give gifts, we don’t want to be paid back according to a price tag on the gift. We help strangers, open our doors in hospitality, and share laughter and hope, for which there are no prices. Wirzba uses the word “covenantal” to describe these kinds of exchanges. We humans crave such robust, complex, relational and life-affirming relations of exchange perhaps because they are the first forms of exchange that nurtured us from our births, and also more importantly, because they are the kind of exchanges God uses with us.

The way out of the life-crushing systems described in the opening paragraph above, as Wirzba reminded us, comes in remembering what work and creatures and land and life itself are all for. Not for pay. Not even for the satisfaction of getting stuff done or “making a difference.” Wirzba says what’s it’s all for is delight. What we crave is “the Sabbath delight that marks God’s own enjoyment of a world beautifully and wonderfully made.” Delightfully caring for the earth and each other, Wirzba writes, “is humanity’s fundamental and abiding vocation.”[2] For delight I stapled together a chicken shelter with my colleagues. For delight our conversations together created a space where we could, as Mary Oliver writes in a poem that Miho Nonaka shared with us, “Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”[3] For delight we ate raspberry and rhubarb tarts Tiffany made for us from the fruit of the land that we helped to nurture for the future.

On our last day in the seminar, Wirzba posed the question, “What if the whole point of education was to facilitate greater delight in each other to be in the presence of God?” I go on sharing meals, ideas, teaching, writing, and life, knowing God had the kindness to make these things not for pay, but for delight.



[1] Norman Wirzba, Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022), 160.

[2] Wirzba, 25.

[3] Mary Oliver, Wild Geese: Selected Poems (Hexham, UK: Bloodaxe, 2004).

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