The earliest job I can remember having was before I started school. My Mom hired me to do two jobs – clean the bathroom and dust all the furniture in the house. Each job paid 2 cents, and each job usually took me about half an hour. (I wasn’t fast, but I was pretty thorough.) I was expected to do both jobs every Saturday morning, and I was given 4 cents for my labors.
I received a big promotion and a slight raise when I turned 5 and started kindergarten. Instead of being paid each time I cleaned the bathroom and dusted, I received a weekly allowance of a nickel. In exchange for that allowance, I was expected to clean the bathroom, dust, and do whatever other jobs my Mom occasionally asked me to do, like scour the kitchen sink, or carry the trash out to the burning pile.
A couple years later I got another promotion and a really big salary bump. My weekly allowance grew to a dollar, but I was strongly encouraged to give 10 cents to Sunday School, put 75 cents into my plastic bank to save for college, and use the remaining 15 cents for spending money. With this promotion, I was also given more responsibility. I had to do dishes every day (shared responsibility with my brother), and help with more house cleaning.
Growing up on a farm, I also was expected to do lots of other jobs, especially in the summer. My favorite job was baling hay. It was always a beautiful, warm, sunny day. I sat perched on top of the red “H” tractor, and slowly drove the tractor around the field, pulling the baler and a wagon behind. My dad stood on the wagon, pulling the bales out of the baler and stacking them on the wagon. My instructions were to steer the tractor so that the baler would pick up all the hay, and to drive smoothly enough that I didn’t throw my Dad off the wagon. (Unfortunately, that happened a few times when I stopped too abruptly or turned a corner without slowing down enough.) Other than the noisiness of the tractor and baler, and the hay dust in the air, it was a beautiful place to spend a summer afternoon.
By the time I graduated from high school, I knew how to work. Some of it I enjoyed. Some I didn’t. In college I had a variety of jobs, from doing dishes in the dining hall, to doing clerical work in an office, to being a church organist. But my real reason for being in college was to figure out what kind of work I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and to get prepared to begin my career.
Reflecting back over the past 40+ years, I realize now that the basic premise that I would have one career in my lifetime was wrong. After college I was a high school English teacher for a couple years, then an editorial researcher for a couple more years, and then I got into business – earning an MBA and working for a large corporation in downtown Chicago. As I moved through these post-college jobs, working became mostly a means of paying my bills rather than actually doing something meaningful with my life. That was a frightening observation! If that was true, was there really any purpose to my life? The only areas of my life where I felt I was doing something that could possibly make the world a better place was in my volunteer activities – serving on the boards of a couple not-for-profit organizations.
It really wasn’t until I became self-employed – first as a business consultant, then as a B&B owner, assisted living provider, church musician, writer, and retreat coordinator – that my life calling seemed truly related to the work I did for a living.
Sr. Joan Chittister talked about finding purpose in your life work in her book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy, with these words:
We need to ask ourselves again why we were born. What is it that we have that the world needs and is waiting for us to provide? That is the star we must follow to its end. Then we will not only hear the silent applause of all those who benefitted from our having lived but we will find the whole of ourselves now wholly developed, waiting for us, as well.
For some people, and for some parts of their lives, the work they do for a living is the fulfillment of their purpose in life. For these people, you might hear comments like, “he’s a born teacher” or “it’s obvious she was meant to be a pastor.”
For others, the labor they do for a living is just that, earning money to pay the bills. Doing the jobs that need to be done. These people still have a purpose in life that God has called them to. They just don’t receive a paycheck for fulfilling their life purpose.
So, what’s my 2-cents worth on working this Labor Day weekend? Not all jobs reflect our life purpose. Some do. Some don’t. But we were all born with a life purpose. Discovering how to fulfill that purpose is the most important job of our life. Frederick Buechner gave us a clue about how to discover our purpose in his book Wishful Thinking. He said, The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.