It had been a month now. An entire month of 60- to 70-hour work weeks, coming in on weekends, and I knew that until this project was finished, it would continue like this. Being fairly new in my career I felt I had to put in the hours to do my part, and so, after another long work day, my feet aching, I drove up to our apartment in the dusk, the following phrase ringing in my mind:
“By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread, all the days of thy life.”
According to Genesis, these are the words God says to Adam and Eve, and to us as their collective children as He drives them out of the blissful Garden of Eden.
Even in a digital age, when automated machinery does a lion’s share of the ‘sweating,’ here we still are working long work hours at jobs that we don’t necessarily see as our lives (why else would we call it ‘work/life’ balance?). But how do we truly find a balance between the necessity of work and the necessity of giving to our family and friends? How do we remain diligent at work when our nine-to-five job is an odd formula that doesn’t always fit the needs of home?
These are all questions that I’ve had time to think about over the past two years, as a twenty-something employee of a global company, a Latter-day Saint, and a person plagued by the question of how to reconcile diligence at work with the much more important demands of my family.
I grew up in a culture where diligence was vital: entire Sunday School lessons were devoted to the topic, and I felt that my hard work was somehow going to define my soul. At the same time, however, I was taught that family, NOT work, is the end goal (working = providing, etc.).
My schooling became a fanatic search for A’s and awards. I was doing my best to embody ‘diligence’ as I pushed myself to the limit. But now, as I have entered the workforce, I find that my diligence sometimes feels misguided. Former habits just can’t apply. Granted, a mean streak of perfectionism is really the problem here: working extra hours to put finishing touches on assignments, coming in on weekends to try to attack time-sensitive projects, making sure my colleagues know I go the extra mile. However, I’ve been discovering more and more that these long hours are not sustainable if I want to be present at home. Staying late at the office and having a preoccupation with my projects doesn’t allow enough space for the caring, the listening, and the day-to-day emotional work of life. It is easy to forget the phone call to a friend that I felt I should make, or the errand my spouse asked me to run if I spend eight hours a day diligently thinking about endless work tasks and projects that I have contractually agreed to focus on.
I have to admit, it took me a long time to realize that my frustrations with work were largely centered in the way I was approaching it. All along I was trying to justify myself by my work. I secretly wanted people to be awed by either how much work I did, or by the importance of the work I was doing. I wasn’t trying to make my meager contribution, I was trying to do something grandiose (or at least impressive) with all eight hours of my working day…which is working for the wrong things.
Recently, I read an excellent quote that related to my predicament. Adam Miller, an LDS philosopher at Collins College in Texas, wrote a bold paraphrasing of the entire book of Ecclesiates. In his modern extrapolations on Ecclesiates 4:5-6 he says:
“Work…can’t be avoided. Life forces us back to it. Fools may sit on their hands and refuse to work, but their torpor is its own punishment. However, wearing out your life at work is no answer either. It’s better to work patiently and rest from time to time, acknowledging the earth and sky, than to exhaust yourself at the office chasing prizes that can’t satisfy.”
I’d been chasing prizes that couldn’t satisfy: impressing others, looking for praise, wanting only meaningful work instead of bowing to do the mundane, etc. And when the work cut into my desires to serve others, especially my family, all that work very suddenly seemed pointless. My efforts of the day weren’t really lining up with what I knew, deep down, was most important. Even though the work hours might be the same, the work itself could be approached differently.
So often, we think of our skills in terms of what they can get for us: a penchant for easy conversation gets people to like you; a quick mind brings you good test scores to get you into a prestigious college and into a lucrative career…and the list goes on. The truth is, pushing yourself to do well may include some of these things, but I’ve realized that we are hopelessly tethered if we think that this is their end purpose. This is where I feel my disillusionment with work comes in. In all of my noble pursuits, I may have forgotten that the paycheck or the prestige is much less important than the growth, the increased capacity to serve, the necessary lessons about caring for others in all situations. The truth is, my work doesn’t have to be so fully divorced from what’s important in life, as long as it becomes part of what I have to offer the world.
After thinking about it for a while, I’m starting to realize that if you want satisfaction in your work, then it’s got to come from an inner feeling of integrity. If your efforts line up with your values, even if they’re not world-shattering, then you have integrity. If you give what’s needed where you’ve made commitments, you have integrity. And most importantly of all, if you’re willing to give up your own stories to use your talents for what’s most important to you and to God, you have integrity.
In trying to change my entire work approach (not an easy task), I’ve had to come up with a new set of maxims:
Instead of trying to impress others, let’s try to help them. Instead of looking for praise, let’s try to be reliable. Instead of always seeking to do grandiose things in our work, let’s be willing to do the things that just need to get done. Instead of putting in extra hours, let’s try to work efficiently and go home to our families, content that we did our best to fulfill our obligations. In other words, let’s try to work with integrity.
Again, quoting Adam Miller’s paraphrasing, this time of Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
“Don’t object to the little joys that accrue just because they aren’t the big joys you wanted. Eat, drink, and enjoy your work for its own sake. Let what is given be a grace.”
I can’t claim that I’ve solved this question for myself fully yet, but I feel that the more I try to live as though my job were part of what I can offer, the less I resent it. The more I try to live my life lessons at work as well as at home, the more satisfaction I feel. I may not be saving the world with every work day, but maybe this way I can save my integrity — and my sanity.
Sarah Barrows is a friend of Dia Darcey from their time together in Hong Kong. A Northern Idaho native, she recently spent the past two years in Wisconsin working in the food science industry. An avid appreciator of food and the world around her, she can, with equal likelihood, be found either experimenting in the kitchen or enjoying the outdoors.
7 thoughts on “By the Sweat of Thy Brow”
I love these ideas, Sarah! It’s been hard for me to give up overachieving for the sake of the praise of others and be humble enough to just do what needs to be done. These principles extend to all work-spheres I think, even mommying-at-home like mine.
I enjoyed this very much. I’ve thought about a very prominent “Mormon” Saying: ” No success can compensate for failure in the home.” I feel that this is not an indictment but a true statement and one that we parents understand, sometimes painfully!
Thank you for sharing these thoughts. You’ve got me thinking about integrity. Etymologically, the word connotes wholeness, and could be considered the opposite of “fragmentation.” Are the various spheres of my life integrated or fragmented?
Great question. What do you think? I think it can be problematic to go too far in either of those directions, actually. I have a family friend who has done research on this topic and she describes how we have “borders” in our lives that we cross several times a day: borders between family duties and work duties, etc. There is always conflict between these borders and she’s found that the conflict is sometimes greater if the borders are poorly defined (aka having to deal with several areas of duty at one time). I find this idea interesting, and in my opinion, some separation is good. Would I call that fragmented? I don’t think I would. I think the same attitudes, lessons, and approaches learned in one sphere are absolutely applicable in another. However, I wouldn’t overdo the separation either. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’d love to read your friend’s research. Can you point me towards her work? My research is focused on connections to and from school, which I think is often characterized by unhealthy fragmentation, but I agree that some separation is probably good in general.
I really appreciate these thoughts and your struggle. It is one I had for a lot of years. As I climbed the ladder in my early professional years I became more and more unhappy because of the excessive time and energy those positions required and the serious toll that took on my life in many areas. I felt trapped in this though, because that was success, right? I was supposed to be that dedicated, that perfect, have that title, that praise, those awards, right? Eventually, I decided I had it wrong and the direction my life was headed was not in line with my true values. I made the incredibly difficult decision to change the course of my career. This speech: https://connect.marymount.edu/commencement/archive/2002/address.html, found its way into my path at that exact time, by the grace of God, I believe, and gave me the courage to take the leap and make the needed changes in my life. I was blessed with a new job opportunity that was a little bit of a step back in my career but which still paid well, gave me opportunity to grow laterally, and required less hours and travel and my life has blossomed in wonderful ways since then. I just had re-evaluate my definition of success and stop allowing others to define that for me. I am a much happier, more balanced person and feel I live with a great deal more integrity!
Thank you so much for sharing your experience and that speech. That is a wise and courageous move, and it’s good to hear stories of decisions like this. Too often we just get narratives that describe upward climbs instead of narratives about flourishing. It was good for me to hear your experience.