Chasing Contentment by Erik Reymond, Free for CAPC Members
In Chasing Contentment, Erik Reymond identifies the lie that satisfaction and contentment come through consumption.
At the end of the second season of the series Broadchurch, Sharon Bishop, the defense lawyer for the known killer of a young boy, turns to her former boss and now antagonist, the prosecutor Jocelyn Knight, and says, “I don’t see the nobility in this job. I see a loaded, lopsided game, full of people justifying their cynicism as a higher calling. It’s street fighting in wigs, that’s all.” It’s a sentiment echoed through a variety of current TV shows and films—that the work we do is just a game, played at the expense of the poor and ignorant, the most successful in their fields the slickest and most cynical players. The Big Short, for example, is a film about the men who successfully played the financial game while everyone else lost, and the extremely popular Mad Men series ended its run with an allusion to another Don Draper advertising victory. The TV drama How to Get Away with Murder makes it clear exactly what the best players in the game of law are there to do.
I’ve seen friends and family who work in fields different from my own display an awe-inspiring wisdom and virtue in the face of situations that would confound me.It’s easy, sometimes exciting even, to see work this way. And seeing parts of one’s work as a “game” is not be entirely bad; but when other’s futures and sometimes lives are at stake, we’re required constantly to consider the moral obligations of our work. What characters like those in Broadchurch and other similar shows illustrate is how difficult work in fields like law and business can be when an individual is working within an imperfect system with personal ambitions at stake. But perhaps part of our call into particular vocations as Christians is first of all to be honest about the moral complexities of our work and, second, to recognize the real gift it takes to work with excellence while navigating these ethical gray areas. The wisdom needed to do one’s work well and virtuously is part of what I think is meant when we talk about Christian vocation and gifts.
As is often the case, our temptation is to fall into extremes. On one extreme is the popular Christian idea of “God’s call”—the idea that, following the perfectly right combination of prayer and Bible study, God will somehow make known exactly what a person should be doing with his or her life. Any uncertainty simply indicates a lack of real spiritual seeking or evidence of sin. The feeling is that once we finally hear this “call” and find the job to fit it perfectly, we will no longer face any moral quandaries, since we’re perfectly in God’s will. The other extreme is the equally popular Americanized idea of work, one that says that we are all self-made, that our talents are our entirely own, and that if we’re clever enough we deserve to find work that perfectly matches our abilities and desires. At one time success was attributed to hard work; now, success is dependent on one’s wiles, the ability to play the game and win, whatever the cost. In this case, ethical questions are hardly even questions—individuals will most likely do whatever they need to keep and advance their positions.
However, a more comprehensive and biblical view of work takes into consideration all these factors—God’s will and call, one’s abilities and talents, the ethics of hard work, and practical concerns like money and opportunity. And there’s rarely a straight line from my desire for a particular kind of work and The Perfect Job. Additionally, what we might find when we talk about vocation is not only the ability to do a particular kind of work well but also the moral capacity to deal with some of our profession’s ethical gray areas. Good work is hard. And being skillful and ethical in a position that is part of an imperfect system, as all jobs are, is a whole new level of difficulty. But perhaps part of what it means to be Christian in a particular job means not only that I work with skill, but that I am expecting and prepared for the ethical quandaries I come across. It may mean that I am uniquely gifted both with the skill the job requires and the wisdom needed to deal with those situations.
Of course I am not gifted with those abilities all at once –wisdom, like the skills needed to do my job, is developed over time. And despite what we’d like to think, the answers to some moral questions are not immediately clear: What does a defense lawyer do with a client she believes to be guilty but whose rights have also been violated? What does a professor do about a student who has plagiarized repeatedly but has had little quality education and would benefit from staying in the course? What does the journalist do with a story that needs to be told and would help his career but may damage the lives of those in that story? We walk a delicate line between truth and grace, and finding that balance adds more work to our work.
One individual who knew how to navigate her work with both skill and moral wisdom was the Southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor. A devout Catholic, O’Connor’s works are often undeniably religious, but they are also graphically violent. O’Connor knew she had the skill for creating fiction: when asked “Why do you write?” O’Connor replied simply, “Because I’m good at it.” That she was called to write was clear. But it was also clear that she possessed the wisdom and moral capacity to be both an excellent writer and a devout Christian, to depict violent and disturbing scenarios in her works in ways that were faithful both to her art and her beliefs. O’Connor recognized the violent portions of her stories did not make her works immoral; in fact, their graphic nature was necessary to tell the truth completely.
I’ve seen friends and family who work in fields different from my own display an awe-inspiring wisdom and virtue in the face of situations that would confound me. I think of friends who work in law defending the most marginalized in our society, individuals who may be guilty but who also have rights and dignity that should be protected. I’ve watched professors sit down with students who have cheated or lied and, instead of immediately failing the student out of a course, carefully probe for the deeper issues that lead to the dishonesty, bringing the student to a more profound awareness. I’ve listened to the stories my family member tells me of how he struggles to reconcile some of his company’s practices, pushing back when funds are used less-than-appropriately, rather than simply shrugging and letting the situation pass. You would hardly know it from the constant cycle of news stories about those who’ve failed miserably at handling the ethical aspects of their work, but I believe there are many who work hard at balancing their ambitions and the interests of their companies while maintaining their virtue. These individuals have been gifted not only with the practical skills to do their work, but with the moral capacity to handle complex situations.
At the end of this same Broadchurch episode, Jocelyn approaches Sharon with a surprising proposition—despite their differences, she wants to work with her. “I think you’re wrong about the law,” she says. “It is a calling, it is noble.” And this is true of all our work—it is a calling, and it is noble. And part of what makes it noble is the ethical struggle our work requires of us, the care we should be putting into it, and the moral questions we should be constantly asking ourselves. Seeing our work as a space to practice not only our skills but our virtues makes it a holy space where we and those we work with and for can be transformed.
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