A couple of years ago, I witnessed an exchange between two of my colleagues, both priests. They had been having a rather spirited discussion, over drinks, and personalities and values were clashing. At one point, the younger one asked the older one this question: “Do you find your work meaningful?”
The older priest, a man already in his sixties, gave an answer which, in effect, amounted to this: “That’s a typical question from somebody of your generation who have the luxury of asking a question that most of my generation never got to ask. We didn’t think like that, in terms of meaning or meaningless work. However since you ask the question I will give you my answer: Most of my work is not meaningful. Ninety-five percent of what I do is straight rote, duty, hard work. I do it because it’s my job, because I should have to make a living just like everyone else. Why should I get a free ride? Only about five percent of what I do is creative and gives me energy.
But that is not so bad. That ninety-five percent, all those hours when I have to work and it gives me no energy, but only a pay cheque, is my solidarity with the poor. The poor don’t have meaningful work. They work to make a living, to eat, to pay their mortgages. They work because they have to. Why should I be different! To be a human being is to work for your living, whether it’s meaningful or not. The poor know this.
My father went to work every day for forty years carrying a lunch pail, doing manual labour for somebody else. He did it to make a living, not because he drew meaning from it. He drew his meaning from other things: his family, sports, community life, politics, the church. My work is mostly tedious duty, but it puts me in solidarity with the poor, with my dad and mother who were poor, and the millions of others who have to work for a living without having the luxury of having their work give them much meaning.”
There is a wisdom in his answer which, if properly understood, could save us from much frustration and restlessness and, as this priest suggests, put us into a more genuine solidarity with the poor.
Solidarity with the poor is not just about writing them into our curriculum vitae, an easy enough thing to do and in vogue today. We are virtually tripping over each other in our attempts to establish ourselves as “more-in-solidarity-with-the-poor-than-thou”. We write articles on the poor, go to every kind of meeting and seminar on poverty and justice, protest publicly how offended we are, and try to one-up each other vis-à-vis the admired symbolic things that bespeak our empathy and solidarity trips to the third world, the boycotting of various things, and the academic whipping of certain institutions and symbols.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It is not that this bad. We need to write those articles, go to those meetings, make those protests, boycott those items, and make the necessary critique of certain institutions and symbols. But we are also missing something, and something pretty fundamental in terms of solidarity with the poor, when our desire for meaning and personal fulfillment, legitimate as it may be, precisely turns us into the kind of persons who want to be elite, privileged, and exempt from what is required of the poor, namely, work and duty, despite lost dreams.
Poverty is not just about economics. It is about power, about not having any. It is about being forced – in order to eat, live, and raise a family; to get up early in the morning, pack a lunch, and go, usually with somebody else as boss, to do some work which you do not find very meaningful and you are doing because that is your only option. In fact, that is one of the key definitions of poverty: to not have meaningful work. To the extent that I have meaningful work, I am not poor and I should not pretend to be. I would be both more peaceful and more honest if I understood that.
Further to this, I add another story: Some years ago, a young nun came to me for spiritual direction. She complained that there was a lot of tension in the convent within which she lived. A couple of her sisters did not like her and it was not always the most pleasant of experiences to go home at night. She was giving a lot of conferences on poverty at the time but did not make the connection between her situation and that of millions of persons who live in domestic and marital tension and who also do not always find it pleasant to go home at night. Eventually she saw the connection. It brought her some peace and some genuine empathy. It could do the same for us.