I was born in 1979, the same year President Jimmy Carter diagnosed America’s stagnation as a problem of “energy and malaise.” In other words, the downtrodden state of mind of the American people, many of whom were out of work.
Fortunately, the policies of President Ronald Reagan catapulted America out of the economic doldrums of the 1970s and put millions of Americans back to work, reigniting the American spirit.
One of my biggest fears about our current state of affairs is that individuals, communities, and our nation are entering another period of malaise stemming from joblessness, lack of personal interaction, and political polarization. That malaise not only takes a toll on the human soul, but it can be deadly.
According to a 2010 study, the risk of depression is three times higher for unemployed adults than their employed counterparts. We also know that depression leads to broken relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.
The link between joblessness and depression is not often discussed—instead, financial pressures are blamed. While that may often be true, work provides meaning and purpose, keys to mental health. This is contrary to the common thought that winning the lottery or retiring early and escaping from work are the keys to success and happiness.
Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor, clearly articulates the reasons why so many Americans do not find the joy they anticipated after retiring, winning the lottery, or otherwise “escaping” from work.
Keller brings us back to the Garden of Eden where, before sin entered the picture. Genesis says “Adam and Eve worked the garden.” Why? Because Adam and Eve were created with attributes of the creator. Genesis makes clear that it was hard work for God to create the world, which is why he rested after six days of work.
In short, we do not work because of our sins, we work because we were created to work.
Of course, this doesn’t mean work isn’t miserable at times. It doesn’t mean workers are never exploited or taken advantage of. But it does mean that the concept of work and productivity connects a person to their community and the rest of the world. Work prevents psychologically destructive isolation. In the realm of public policy, encouraging work isn’t meant to shame or punish an individual, it’s meant to lift them up.
Similar to the concept of meaningful work explained by Arthur Brooks in The Conservative Heart, Pastor Keller masterfully articulates that work is the essence of a meaningful life, not the medicine we need to take to pay the bills.
The beauty of work is evident when Giannis Antetokounmpo drives the lane and combines artistry, strength, and speed into a two point conversion. It’s evident when we observe a great artist transform white space into thought provoking art. It’s evident when a chef transforms raw products into a dish that dazzles all five senses on a single plate.
It is easy to appreciate the work of those who perform or create beautiful art. But less evident, maybe until now, is the tremendous impact less-appreciated workers like our custodians have. That custodian cleaning our common spaces and restrooms can be just as consequential as the physician (especially in our Creator’s eyes). The work of maintenance people quite literally maintains our health, standard of living, and civilization.
Similarly, my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all garbage men—men who worked with their hands. I love all my jobs and find great meaning in my work as a senator, Army officer, and CPA, but there is something redemptive when I am able to work with my hands, connecting with the physical labor of the men who came before me. All work—using your hands, mind, and most importantly heart—improves life for our neighbors and connects us with our Creator.
The act of work, even if it’s paid work, is an act of loving our neighbor because the work we do provides things of value for others. It’s a shame that it takes a global health crisis to express our gratitude for the workers who deliver our mail, pick up our garbage, bag our groceries, and so on.
Keller’s book lent additional energy to my own work, and I know it will do the same for your work. But meaningful work isn’t just a signed paycheck. Parenting is work, being a member of a community is work, being a good friend is, at times, work.
Every Good Endeavor is written from the perspective of a Christian who believes our work doesn’t only connect us to each other, but it also connects us to our Creator. The book is worth a read even if you are not a Christian. It speaks to who we are as Americans.
Rather than being an observer of cable news and social media, we can and should strive to be engaged workers. We are America—we build things.
We are not just fighting the coronavirus pandemic right now, we are fighting for the ability to work. As Every Good Endeavor makes clear, this is also a fight for life-sustaining meaning in our lives and as a nation.
RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.