Occupy Chicago was advertising its May Day demonstration last week with a poster that said: “If you have to work to live, is it a choice? If you have no choice, are you free?” Sure, the Occupiers want someone else to work so they don’t have to—they want others to be their keepers. But therein lies the contradiction: the Occupiers claim that they can only be free if they have a choice not to work. But if they choose not to work (and want to live), that means enslaving someone else to do the work that is needed to create the material values (food, shelter, clothing, medicine, etc.) that the Occupiers need to survive.
Freedom that means enslaving someone else is not freedom. Freedom cannot involve forcing someone else to do what you do not want to do. Freedom means, literally, being left alone to pursue your interests (as long as that pursuit does not violate the individual rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness of others).
Since we cannot enslave others—we can only persuade and trade—most of us will have to work to live: to gain the material values that our survival and flourishing depends on. Since the need for material values is continual (even when we live a modest life), work claims the majority of most people’s time and energy. But work does not have to be drudgery, or a necessary evil.
I am going to argue that besides material values, work offers also important spiritual benefits. The most significant of those is the central purpose that work provides us. Having a central purpose enables us to put all the rest of our values (family, friends, recreation, hobbies, entertainment, etc.) into a hierarchy so that we can allocate time and resources to them accordingly. If we had no central purpose, we would not know how important anything was to us. We would not know how to allocate time, energy and resources to achieving random goals: having a vacation at a beach, learning to play golf, financing our children’s education, going shopping, etc.
Because your work provides the central purpose and claims most of your time and energy, it is important that work is something you enjoy doing. This does not mean that every job that you do is necessarily a dream job (“They pay me for doing this?”), but it is important that whatever job you do either helps you learn knowledge or skills, or helps finance education that moves you closer to truly meaningful work. Yes, there are mundane jobs, and they may be fine, if the people holding them are working at the best of their ability. But when you find that you have mastered the job and cannot find better ways of doing it, it is time to move on and find new, more challenging work. By doing whatever work the best you can, you also gain another important spiritual benefit: self-esteem.
So rather than viewing work as a disvalue that limits our freedom like the Occupiers do, we should embrace it as a source of purpose and self-esteem—important elements of a happy, flourishing life.