|4 I also observed that people work hard and become good at what they do only out of mutual envy. This too is pointless, just mere breath.
5 Fools fold their hands and eat their own flesh.
Why do we work hard? Whether it is in an office, on a construction site, or in keeping a home, why do we work hard at what we do? I remember doing piece work in a factory one summer. My co-workers and I got into a friendly competition to see who could make the most parts in an hour. For us it was a way to pass the time, but there was also a sense where none of us wanted to be shown up. We wanted the other people to think we were good at what we do.
Qohelet would have liked that. He says here that one of the reasons we work as hard as we do is so we can impress other people—our bosses, our fellow workers, even ourselves.
To what end? While we can take pride in a job well done, life is more than just work.
Qohelet points to a middle way between two extremes. The first is idleness. Idle hands may not be the devil’s workshop, but neither are they the way to success. If we are not willing to work, he says, that is like eating our own flesh, a very graphic way of saying that you cannot sustain yourself without some source of outside nourishment.
On the other hand, why give yourself completely over to your job? I once spent a weekend at a retreat where we were not allowed to talk about work. We were a group of strangers, and I quickly realized that if I could not talk about work I did not have a lot to talk about. That was a wakeup call for me. I needed to have more in my life. I mean, I love my job, but I am more than a job. I realize the day will come when I retire, and if I have invested all I have into my work, what will have when they give me my gold watch and send me on my way? If my whole life consists of work, I will find myself empty-handed on that day.
In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, prisoners in a Russian labor camp are building a brick wall. Ivan and the other prisoners are getting into the rhythm of the work, and as Solzhenitsyn describes it, they are almost enjoying their activity. They are in a labor camp. They cannot choose whether or not they will work. All they have control of is how well they work. If they work too hard, they will wear themselves out, and not be fit to work the next day. On the other hand, if they slack off, the authorities will come in with severe punishments.
While we do not live in labor camps, Qohelet would say that is a good description of our lives and work. There is no need to go overboard. Life is more than work. On the other hand, not working carries with it its own punishments.
Thoughts and Questions
- Can you think of times when you have genuinely enjoyed your work? Why was work pleasurable to you? What made you enjoy it?
- What about people who are caught in dead-end jobs? Qohelet claims to be a king. (Nice work if you can get it!) What about the people who empty the garbage, or pick pears, or unclog sewer lines? Can they find any meaning their work?
- Do you think that Solzhenitsyn was really describing the human condition when he is talking about Ivan Denisovich laying bricks, or is our life so different from that the comparison is not a valid one? Have you ever felt trapped in work, or in your life?