labour of love
The concept of “work” is a Rorschach test, an inkblot that you can project pretty much anything onto. There are definitions that speak of a meaningless Sisyphean grind inside an oppressive and cruel economic system designed to extract the maximum possible short-term value from all its constituent parts. There are also definitions that evoke the sincere joy of putting care and attention toward something worth nurturing, and shepherding its growth through consistent, deliberate effort. Your definition of work probably says more about you than the actual concept itself.
I love work, by which I mean I love the feeling of focusing my energy toward a particular goal and watching the nebulous mist between here and there slowly thin to reveal wobbly, winding stepping stones. I love the satisfaction of a certain type of exhaustion that comes from having pitted my brain and my hands against a problem and found myself a little closer to who I want to be.
Unfortunately, the work that most of us spend the bulk of our days on is not work that fills up our self-actualization tank. Mostly, we work at a job to make money so we can pay for a place to sleep and food to eat. We work to prove that we deserve to live.
If you’re really lucky, the work you do for money is work you can find stimulation and joy in. It might even be work you love. But whatever emotion you pour into your job, you pour into an institution that’s incapable of reciprocation. You will only ever be a line on a balance sheet, part of the cost of goods sold, a capital investment into research and development. Even if you work for yourself, you only get to keep working as long as someone is buying the product or promise that you’re selling, and when you need to be cut to make some arbitrary numbers make sense, you will be. Some organizations will do it more harshly or gently than others, but the cut still inevitably knifes into the life you thought you had.
This callousness is especially painful if you work for an organization that professes to have values that align with yours and fails to live up to them. The moral injury of being betrayed by your leaders can be deeply distressing, and people often feel guilt, shame, and anger in its aftermath for having trusted someone or something untrustworthy, or for not having seen this coming and done more to prevent it. Civil rights groups hire predatory law firms to bust unions, anti-racist organizations exploit Black and Indigenous communities, champions of open source software get in bed with notorious monopolists when the money is right, and the people who joined those organizations for a cause are left wondering when exactly the paradigm shifted.
Your job won’t love you back, no matter what love you give it. But the people you work with will. Organizations know this, and the worst among them actively exploit the bonds between colleagues to extract more labour, correctly assuming that you’re more willing to tolerate bad work conditions to protect your friends. Luckily, the strength of your bonds doesn’t only serve profit and productivity; it can also be harnessed for genuine solidarity. Labour organizing is most urgently about material conditions, about safe working environments and pay equity and adequate workloads and time for rest, but at its core it is also an expression of your collective morality: how should people be treated?
Moral injuries require moral remedies, and there are so few sites for structured conversations about morality outside of organized religion or academia. Despite its imperfections, labour organizing is an organization’s best shot at such a remedy. The work of organizing can be hard and dispiriting and exhausting. You’re asked to articulate your values and to advocate for them in a way that few of us are called upon to do, and there is inevitably going to be conflict as you struggle to avoid recreating the same power structures you’re fighting against. The work can also be invigorating and inspiring, as you band together and demand the power that will let you shape your organization into an space where everyone is treated fairly. It is, I think, the best form of love you can show your coworkers.
Sometimes I think that all that love is, at its core, is a willingness to do the work. When people say “love is not enough” they mean “the emotion of love is not enough to sustain a relationship”, and of course it isn’t. The emotion cannot lift you in and out of the bathtub when you injure yourself, drive across the country with you for the sake of your dream, wrestle with hex wrenches to put together flatpack furniture for the umpteenth time. Which isn’t at all to discount the emotion: the emotion is what makes the work joyful when it’s easy and bearable when it’s hard, what makes mishaps feel like adventure and sacrifices feel like gifts. It’s even what recognizes when letting go is the better choice. But the fuel that powers the emotion after its initial ignition is the work of showing up.
Love, too, is an inkblot test, and I’m sure this definition of love tells you much more about me than I intend it to. I’ve been told that defining love by its precondition of work is bleak, but I don’t actually think it is. What better thing is there to put your work into if not love? Unyoking your love from your job—fundamentally an economic transaction—frees you up to put work into your relationships and your community, inside the workplace and out. It also, crucially, frees you up to put work into loving and caring for yourself, and pursuing the things that make you more of who you are.
The reward for this work won’t show up in a payroll ledger or get counted in the GDP, but the reciprocity of a family or a community or a planet that loves one another, and that is willing to show up to do the work, is sustaining in a way money alone cannot be. This kind of work is nothing less than an expression of optimism that what you love can and will flourish.
My generation and the next, allegedly, do not dream of labour. But labour was never the problem. The problem has always been the alienation and exploitation of labourers, the unequal burdens we are asked to carry for scraps. And while I understand, truly and deeply, the appeal of withdrawing your labour entirely in the face of this injustice, let that withdrawal be purposeful and targeted rather than nihilistic. After all, successful strikes take an enormous amount of work to organize.
As my husband is apt to remind me when I’m busy feeling sorry for myself, nothing worth having comes without commensurate effort. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some entirely unscientific cosmic law of conservation of energy that dictates this. Even things like the lottery, where someone might spend $1 on a ticket and walk away with millions, are reflective of the effort of the millions of people who each put $1 toward the pool. The work still happened even when it didn’t come from the person who reaped the reward, which is incidentally also how billionaires are spawned.
Even in a socialist utopia, someone has to harvest the crops and someone has to clean the bathroom. Refusing this work isn’t revolutionary, it’s libertarian. Many a commune has fallen apart because people forget that retreating from society doesn’t obviate the need for the dishes to be done. (That, and because few people have actually done the work to unlearn the ways in which they instinctively uphold hegemony, but that’s an entirely separate essay.) Stocking a mutual aid fridge is work. Distributing meals to your neighbours is work. Loving this planet enough to fight against the man-made systems that harm us all, instead of retreating, is the hardest work there is.
If you’ve always been sure you don’t want kids (which I have) and if you don’t believe in god or an afterlife (which I don’t), there’s not a lot of readily available answers to the question of what the meaning of life is. The only answer I’ve been able to come up with for myself is this: to ensure that my presence on this earth makes it better than if I hadn’t lived at all. Whether or not I’ll have managed to achieve that is an unknowable calculation. All I can do is try to love this stupid, cruel, wonderful, gorgeous world I’ve been given through an accident of entropy, and hope that I can give it a better than equivalent exchange.
They say that people on their deathbeds never wish they had spent more time working. I certainly believe that no one wishes, in the moments before death, that they had spent more time at the office earning a wage. But when I think about what would be weighing on my mind if I knew today were my last day to live, I suspect I’ll mostly wonder whether I’ve done enough work.
My deepest thanks to Kat, Ethan, and Jamie for reading several early drafts and providing invaluable feedback and advice.