I’ve been reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Bottom, and the book itself is a joy.
It’s well done literary non-fiction, an exploration of work in ten fields, everything from being an accountant to the manufacturer of cookies.
I can’t begin to do justice to the literary and philosophical texture of these essays, but his style is almost poetic, as when he describes how a supermarket supply chain flies “blood-red strawberries over the Arctic Circle by moonlight, leaving a trail of nitrous oxide across a black and gold sky.”
De Bottom’s purpose is to explore the beauty and occasional horror of work in the modern world. If you read his chapter on cookie (biscuit, since he’s British) manufacture you may never eat snack food again, not because it is unsanitary, but because the process itself is so sterile it has no connection or resonance with home or hearth.
“The strangest thing about the world of work is the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy,” he writes, in explaining his purpose. It’s not that he finds this development unworthy or unwelcome. It’s just that to find this true we have to be more thoughtful and aware.
Or reflective. Many of our cultural perspectives about work, that we work in order to play, for example, devalue the work itself.
Even the Christian notion that work is the result of the fall, a curse on Adam if you will, fails to account for the truth that the work itself is a grace, a channel of blessing through which we learn and grow and give.
Here is how Ecclesiastes puts it:
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
This gift, taking pleasure in our toil, is sometimes hard to receive. But it can be done. De Bottom has one chapter about an artist who has spent ten years painting a tree. The pleasure of this task can not be seen by counting the number of hours he spends in sketching or the number of hues on his pallet.
We are all artist in some sense. Our ability to create meaning in the mundane says something about what it means to be made in the image of God. And it allows us to approach our daily duty with reverence, creativity and joy.
The happiness we find in work begins in our heart.