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To Work, Divine

May 9, 2009 | by Eytan Kobre

Many of us walk around the workplace wishing we were elsewhere despite the fact that the work we do is deeply gratifying. What gives?

We've all seen them.

Cutesy bumper stickers in various colors, affixed to the backs of Beetles and BMWs alike, and all with one theme. Whether they read "I love work---I could watch it all day" or the ubiquitous "I'd rather be fishing," the message is the same -- to paraphrase Erma Bombeck, if life's bowl of cherries, work is the pits.

Listening to lunchtime banter in the workplace, it sometimes seems almost de rigueur for people to profess great distaste, if not downright abhorrence, for the vocation that occupies most of their waking hours. And, judging from the standard answers given every time the local paper's "inquiring reporter" asks everyone's favorite question: "What would you do if you'd hit a 100 million dollar lotto jackpot?" not many people seem interested, given their financial druthers, in keeping their day job.

But is that really so? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychology professor who has earned a national reputation studying human happiness, reports finding in study after study a perplexing pattern in attitudes towards work. On the one hand, "when working, people - from assembly-line workers to surgeons - report feeling generally strong, creative and satisfied; when free to do whatever they want in their free time, they tend to feel weak, dull and dissatisfied."

We have a love/hate relationship with work

Paradoxically, writes Csikszentmihalyi, "given a choice, few would want to work more; instead, everyone prefers to have more discretionary time." The existence of this love/hate relationship with work will likely be confirmed by anyone who couldn't wait to jet off for that long-planned two week jaunt to glorious Tahiti, only to be itching a fortnight later to return to the far more prosaic surroundings of the office cubicle.

Granted that human beings can often act and emote in strange, even contradictory ways. To think, however, that most people walk around the workplace wishing they were elsewhere despite the fact that the work they do there is deeply gratifying to them is truly puzzling. What gives?


A look at what the millennia-old Jewish religious tradition has to say about the roots of human creativity offers a way of understanding why we react to work in the strangely conflicting ways we do. In classical Jewish thought, the point of our existence is - get this - to experience pleasure.

That, of course, is a concept which contemporary society would seem to heartily endorse. Unlike current notions of pleasure-seeking, however, Judaism teaches that the highest form of pleasure - the one any serious pleasure-seeker ought to be focused on - is connection to God, who is, after all, the source of all pleasures, great and small.

Connecting spiritually to God is achieved by doing those things through which we come, on our finite, human level, to resemble the Divine. Remember the United Way ad urging us to "Do something good, feel something real"? Each time we take a step toward become more loving and giving, more compassionate, we tap into the profoundly real pleasure of being Godlike.

Each time we take a step toward become more loving and giving, we tap into the profoundly real pleasure of being Godlike.

It's not just involvement in good works, however, that produces that sort of high. Whenever we manifest our creativity and autonomy, the good feelings that we experience are a result of acting in ways that resemble an omnipotent, autonomous Creator. To put it another way, the fact that, in Professor Csikszentmihalyi's words, "[h]umans seem to be biologically programmed to enjoy confronting challenges, using their skills and developing their potential," is no accident. It is what's implicit in the verse in Genesis that speaks of Man being created "in God's image." That "image" includes not only untold potential for kindness and ethical sensitivity, but also the capacity to build and develop the world around us, to explore and innovate and conquer new vistas of understanding.

Of course, we know only too well that there's another, less noble side to each of us. Counterbalancing the "higher self" that wants to stretch upwards, to actively pursue resemblance to God, is that "lower self" whispering sarcastically "Who do ya think you're kidding?" and suggesting we sit right back down.

Every well-intentioned plan to get up early to lend a hand with food packages for the needy must squelch the voice telling you to hit the snooze button and turn over. And every resolve to give your career your all or to finally strike out on your own in business must overcome the natural tendency to put your feet up and allow inertia and the "that's the way we've always done things" mentality to extinguish those nascent sparks of independent initiative and creativity.

The paradox of people who do gratifying work, yet, simultaneously, wish they were loafing on a pier somewhere, fishing rod in hand, is but a microcosm of the internal struggles of every human being, each of whom is, in the Talmud's phrase, "part angel and part animal."

Or, to paraphrase an immortal line, "to fish is human, to work - Divine."

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