Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Work is sacred

On "Counterpart Day", the last day of training, our counterparts came to take us to our sites.

There was a section of the agenda where we were to discuss with them our different cultural perspectives on universal concepts, such as family, work, gender, love. The municipal council member accompanying my counterpart spoke first: "Work is sacred," he said. "Everyone has the right to work."

Just a week ago, all the municipal employees met with the new mayor. Unlike most new mayors, he has no plan to fire anyone in order to make space for family members. The key part of his speech was that he expected quality work from us, but if we did not work hard, our jobs would be at risk. "Your work is sacred," he said. "Protect it."

Today I went to call on a friend's mother so I could borrow a key. I felt rude because I was rushed and didn't have time to chat. "I understand," she said. "It's your work. My daughter, too. That's a good thing. Work is sacred."

It seems like I've heard that a lot lately, and it's got me thinking hard to make sense of it. I suppose work would be considered sacred in a culture where the amount of work you do, the area of land you cultivate, the products you sell at market, directly relate to the amount of food on the table at night.

Work means a healthy family. It means the ability to live easier. It's survival. It's sacred because it's not necessarily something that everyone has, regardless of their merit. A plague or drought or crippling illness can affect anyone's work indiscriminately. Work, in a sense, is God-given.

I've always thought of work from the perspective of the industrial-age "Protestant work ethic," though. People who are smarter and work harder get better jobs. Some jobs are better than others. (Quick test here: Janitor or lawyer? Which does mainstream US and even Guatemalan culture suppose is better?) Work is not sacred, because it is something man controls. It is earned by man, not God-given.

But more and more, I think I can see the Mayan point of view. The recent economic crises have served as a reminder that we live in a complicated economic system, one that we hardly control. The crises have shown lots of people that there is no shame in working simply to put food on the table.

Point being: Work is not something everyone has. We shouldn't take our work for granted, or complain about it, whatever it is. We have to protect it - do it as well and with as much pride as we can, while knowing it can be taken just as it was given.

If we don't revere our work, we've lost sight of its basic meaning.

One day I was chatting with some friends over lunch. We were talking about US culture, how we are often so rushed working that we eat lunch standing or at our desks. One friend commented, "You know, that's so funny. It's impossible to get people from the communities [small villages in my municipality] to even come to an event during lunchtime."

Another agreed. "It's because they haven't lost perspective," he said. "We work to eat, not the other way around."

Your work is sacred. Protect it.

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