In the Mirror of Work

work,laundryAn employee at our local grocery store lives down the street from our family. Regularly, I see her walking the mile-and-a-half stretch to her job. The scene changes with the weather and time of day, but there’s one thing I can count always count on: She’ll be smiling. A big, joyful smile, not only with her mouth but with her eyes.

In her shoes, many people would be doing the opposite. She’s not going to a party, after all; she’s going to work. Alone. On foot. Sometimes in rain or snow. Yet, while I pass her in my warm car together with my loved ones, this woman who lacks visible comforts somehow bestows comfort to me. The glow of her face warms my heart. Her happiness is catching.

In the book The Mother of Christ, Caryll Houselander writes that “work…is one of the greatest of all means to human happiness as well as to human goodness.”

The woman I see walking to work seems to know this secret well.

In my lifetime, I’ve encountered thousands of workers. They’ve fixed my car, sold me shoes, served my dinner, and administered surgical anesthesia. Many did their jobs well. But a few did more than their jobs. They lived Houselander’s words. They worked, and happiness and goodness followed.

Work and Happiness

For as long as my young children can remember, we’ve taken a weekly trip to our local library. And for as long as they can remember, a librarian named O.J. has been a special part of that trip. Not just because he checks out their books, but because he makes them feel important.

As he scans their books, O.J. asks the children questions about their lives and listens with genuine interest to their answers. His smile tells them he is always happy to see them. One year, when the children told him that their birthdays were coming up, he remembered and had cards waiting for them at the desk. When our new baby was born, he was as thrilled for our family as a proud uncle would have been.

On a library shelf in the children’s section, there’s a picture book called The Growing-Up Feet. In the story, the two main characters—a young brother and sister—can’t wait for their mailman, Mr. Lemon, to come each day. Not because they want the mail, but because they want to show him things. Important things, like their new rain boots. Because they know Mr. Lemon will always be as excited as they are.

In a way, O.J. is my children’s Mr. Lemon. Both of them—the fictional character and the real one—bring others happiness through their jobs.

Ecclesiastes 5:19 says that when God enables man to “accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God.” A gift, not only for the happy man, but for all those he encounters in the course of his work.

Work and Goodness

Several years ago, in the early stages of my third pregnancy, a phlebotomist in my doctor’s office took my blood and talked joyfully with me about the blessings of motherhood. Weeks later, she took my blood again, this time with tears in her eyes. Quietly and sadly, she told me how sorry she was that I had miscarried.

I haven’t seen her in years, and I don’t even know her name. But even now, her tears are a part of my healing. Reaching beyond her job to meet me in my joy and in my grief, the phlebotomist used her work as, in Houselander’s terms, “a means to human goodness.”

In his encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II says that “through work man…achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes more a human being.” From what I’ve seen, that person who, through his work, becomes “more a human being,” will be quicker to recognize that very humanity in those he serves. Quicker to see those he works for as people, not just customers.

As the years fade, so does my memory. Yet etched there—easily accessible even when I’ve forgotten my own age—are the faces of people whose work taught me something about human goodness.

The furnace repairman who, when our heat went out in the dead of winter, offered to come over right away, at 9 p.m., not the following morning during “office hours.”

 The contractor who, when my daughter got injured while he was working in our house, immediately stopped and prayed aloud over her.

The church custodian who told me she prayed for all the people who sat in the pews she cleaned. And who once referred to my fussy, crying baby as “an angel singing.”

“Through work,” Houselander writes, “modern man can…restore God’s image and likeness in himself.” Workers who show compassion to, listen to, laugh with, cry with, care for, pray for, and even just smile at the people they serve, fill a job description far greater than the one for which they were hired: They reflect God’s image and likeness to the world.

They let us see His reflection in the mirror of work.

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