The Value of Work

"Do not depend on the hope of results. . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no worth at all, if not perhaps, results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you will start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."

Thomas Merton

"Before the enlightenment carry the water, till the soil. After enlightenment carry the water, till the soil."

Zen teaching

When we are children we play. Sometimes children play at work. A child may dig in the earth or push a plastic lawn mower, wash imaginary food from toy dishes with imaginary water, or build things from blocks just to take them apart again. The activity is not to fix something that is wrong or to build something to last. It is play work done for the joy of the activity and the learning to do it.

Later, we may work because our parents demand it. The dishes are washed or the lawn is mowed, because we are told to do it. The task may be meaningless to us; we may do it resentfully. Perhaps we comply to avoid trouble. Maybe we do the work for some reward.

With a little more maturity our work becomes purposeful. We work to achieve some result. The dishes are dirty, so we clean them to have clean dishes. The grass is long, so we mow it to have a nice lawn. If we are lucky, when we are adults we find employment that is purposeful. Maybe we work to raise a family. Maybe we work to accomplish some social goal. It feels good to be useful and to see progress from our labor.

Unfortunately, for many people, work never becomes more than a means to an end. The work is strictly to get money to buy things, and the act of work is empty of value to the worker. When work has only this secondary, monetary meaning it becomes routine, boring, and even depressing.

If we work only for the money, we have a problem, because our work may seem empty. If we work only for the results of our work we have a problem, because results are often unpredictable.

If we can focus on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work, we can enjoy it for what it is, regardless of the compensation, regardless of the outcome. This is true of work in the physical world, and it is true in the realm of spiritual work. The truly virtuous person does not do good works and spiritual practices to get into heaven. They do what is right, because it is right.


Ask yourself:

Then ask yourself:

To the Meditation Archive Menu

To the current Meditation of the Week


© 1998-2002 Tom Barrett