Every day as I look out my front window, I see one of my neighbors, a fellow parishioner, walking his little dog. It is a sad tableau because it tells me that he has not yet found a job. Too young to retire, he had a prestigious position in an importing firm. Several times a year he traveled to Hong Kong on business. But late last year his job was eliminated.
As the unemployment rolls swell to millions in the United States and worldwide, God’s words to Adam and Eve seem less of a curse: “By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the earth from which you were taken, for you are dirt and to dirt you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
Today’s economic crisis makes us think of work as a blessing.
It is amazing how, no matter how we might dread the daily grind, work defines our lives.
I retired from my main job almost 10 years ago, but my heart still beats a little faster every Sunday night in anticipation of the work I might be able to do come Monday.
For most of us, meaningful work nourishes our dignity and self-worth besides paying for our daily bread. It keeps us alive.
Retirement challenges us to avoid idleness and remain useful, learning something new every day.
Cousin Joe Aragon, who spent many years on the assembly line at General Motors and running his own business, says, “I just have to work every day.”
He helps neighbors cut firewood, tills a large garden whose produce he mostly gives away, tends several bee hives whose honey he barters for fruit.
When he became interested in computers, he picked up several discarded machines, took them apart and learned how to replace all their components. Now he shares his expertise with his friends and relatives. He is a vital, interesting man because he works.
Work, however, is a double-edged sword; it can liberate but it can also enslave, causing us to neglect obligations to our family and our community.
It can also lead to incredible violence, as witnessed by the long, sad history of slavery. Even today in many parts of the world countless people, many of them children, work in inhuman, unsafe, intolerable conditions.
May Day, celebrated in most of the world on May 1, commemorates the historic struggle for work that befits our human dignity. On that day in Chicago in 1886, the labor movement won an eight-hour workday for clothing cutters, shoemakers and packinghouse workers.
But on May 3 police fired at striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works Factory, killing four and wounding many. That led to a mass meeting in Haymarket Square, where a bomb killed a policeman and injured 70, leading to hangings of labor leaders. Every gain has been achieved at tremendous sacrifice.
Hard times often bring out the best in us. According to news reports, workers in some companies volunteer to work fewer hours each week so that others will not be laid off.
Let’s hope this crisis also builds empathy for those who risk death crossing borders to work so that their families won’t suffer hunger.
Along the Mexican border, hundreds die each year from thirst, heat or cold. Better laws and policies can change that.
And, as we pray for the unemployed, let’s thank God for all those who love their work.
Moises Sandoval writes “Buscando Vida/Seeking Life,” a Catholic News Service column appearing monthly in Spanish and English. Sandoval is a former editor of Maryknoll magazine and founding editor of Revista Maryknoll.
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