Labour Day is rolling around again—our nice, Protestant, North American Labour Day, that is months away from “May Day,” and has nothing to do with it—and we must all switch from heat-stroke mode, back to moral exhaustion.
I used to quote with glee a Scotchman I knew (i.e. a Scots Canadian), to the effect that, “Labour Day is the day on which we must work especially hard, to show how much we have gained in efficiency over the past year.”
He received this instruction at the knee of his beloved mother, but felt sure it was not original to her.
As a descendant of Gaelic-speaking persons, myself—and those, of the Calvinist persuasion—I could not doubt this assertion for a moment.
But I would like to supply, this year, an alternative quote, from an old Czech friend, whose wisdom is equally unimpeachable.
It was something he learned as a young man in the taverns of Moravia:
“Work is not rabbit. It will not run away.”
That is what you say when a prospective drinking companion pleads that he must work for a living. It is the unanswerable argument, true from every angle.
I met this man recently, in Peterborough, Ont.—for a beer, of all things, on a hot and hazy Sunday afternoon; and in the company of my own, now fully-grown boys—to one of whom he once stood godfather. A lad who wasn’t drinking, incidentally, because he’d have to drive. (Our North American Puritanism is alive and well, though it has abandoned religion and invested itself instead in health and safety regulations.)
My friend extended this wonderful Central European observation, by lecturing my lads on the importance of not taking work too seriously.
There is nothing wrong with having a job, he argued, but it becomes a moral danger when it begins to occupy too large a place in one’s mind. Granted, it must take up a large proportion of one’s waking hours, in the weekdays, but the person who carries his job about with him like a snail his shell, may become more snail than human.
In particular, he warned against the danger of mistaking one’s colleagues at work for friends.
Yes, one may by some happy accident, meet at work some friend for life. But such friends are very special, and for the rest, within the “work environment,” our Czech sage recommends a polite aloofness; an unwillingness to enrol in the soap operas unfolding around one; a visceral shrinking from “office politics.”
And if you have merits, which no one ever notices, because you have not forced them on their attention, then who cares? Rewarded merit only means more work.
An exception was made for those with vocations.
It will happen sometimes that a true vocation will coincide with something that looks like a job. There are people who genuinely love their jobs, and this in itself could be the sign of a vocation.
By all means let them work day and night, for that is what they are called to do—we hope by their Maker, and not by the Adversary.
For the present argument, however, we must set vocations aside, together with all priests; monks and nuns; poets and prophets; artists and musicians; scientists of some kinds.
Most of us are called to live fairly normal lives, and possess, or are possessed by, no shocking and extraordinary talents.
We have little callings, amounting to “a competence”; we have (normally) families to raise and serve, and in that alone a task field of no small importance.
Lose a job, and you may find another. Do not lose a child.
It was a point that came home to me when I learned of the fate of another man, recently. It doesn’t matter who he is, or where he was working, for he is typical of many in an economic downturn.
He’d worked for this company all his adult life; his father had worked for the company before him. Suddenly he found himself being frogmarched to the property line at his place of employment.
This, too, is typical, of modern “labour market” practices: to remove the ex-employee quickly from what Catholics might call “the occasion of sin,” on the theory that, were he left hanging around the office, he might at least spread a little dissension, and at worst go to work on the office mechanical systems, with a crowbar. Better for him, as well as for the company, not to have that chance.
We don’t like to think about such things.
It is so much easier to accept at face value the public relations materials that every large company distributes among employees, about how much the company cares; and in a pinch, to cite various standard clich