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Anna Karenina: The Dignity of Work

"The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well finished of itself.  These were the most blissful moments...All that was drowned in a sea of merry common labor.  God gave the day, God gave the strength.  And the day and the strength were consecrated to labor, and that labor was its own reward.  Leo Tolstoy from Anna Karenina pgs, 299, 326

In this scene Constantin Levin who is wealthy landowner decides to spend several days working with the peasants who take care of his land. Levin is a intriguing and captivating character who was born to aristocracy but later renounced his privileged life in order to run his estate in the countryside, hundreds of miles away from the stiffing air of St. Petersburg's nobility. Armed only with a scythe and a genuine admiration for his workers Levin reflects upon the dignity and peace that he found while working on his land. 

For nearly three months I suffered greatly with being unemployed.  It was one of the most trying periods of my life. Everything seemed to deteriorate for me my psyche, my spirit, and my outlook It just did not make any sense.  Why would God allow for me to endure this strange cross?  What was the meaning of this struggle?  Most importantly what was God trying to tell me through this suffering?  I wrestled greatly with these questions as I went on nearly 30 interviews during this three month span.  I was growing desperate, I was running out of faith I needed to simply work. My sanity and spiritual health depended on it.  Something had to change fast.

Fortunately last month I was able to land a job at a cleaning company.  I am not going to lie it was difficult work.  There were times where I even felt humiliated especially whenever I would clean the toilets of our client's houses.  I thought to myself, "Why the hell did I go to college?  Just to end up cleaning someone else's toilet?  But even when I struggled to maintain hope while I was scrubbing toilets something beautiful was happening within me that I did not anticipate.

A new joy had begun to take form, each day that I worked I realized that I was less depressed and burdened. I was more happy, more at peace and I even began to look forward to waking up each morning. I had a purpose, I had a mission I came to the profound realization that my work had become my prayer. Like Constantin Levin I discovered that man was created to work and through that work man would find his greatest dignity. I even began to relish cleaning the toilets; as long I was not home I was OK, as long I was working there was dignity, there was honor, there was self respect.  Work had become my means of salvation.

John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Exercens reflects upon this profound truth:

"God's fundamental and original intention with regard to men, whom he created in his image and after his likeness, was not withdrawn or cancelled out even when man, having broken the original covenant with God heard the words: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread."  These words refer to the sometimes heavy toil that from then onward has accompanied human work;  but they do not alter the fact that work is the means whereby man achieves that "dominion"   (Section 9.2)

With the current U.S. unemployment rate skyrocketing to 9.8% the issue of labor is very much in our public consciousness.  I wonder how many of these 17 million unemployed Americans (including myself again now unfortunately) are really craving work no matter how menial. Or are there those that are quite content to be idle? Unfortunately judging by the actions of yesterday's, lame duck congress some of our politicians seem more content in advocating a culture that is antithetical to the dignity of work.

Despite these troubling trends I can say that I certainly know where I stand now. These past few months have shown me who I am and what I am made of. A man who actually believes there is infinitely more to labor than just financial compensation.

To read my other post that I wrote about this subject titled, "Work: A Path to Holiness" click here.


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