The Spiritual Value of Work

What’s more important – your work or your relationships? That’s the question posed by David Brooks in his op-ed in the New York Times. He references the case of Sandra Bullock, whose career success has recently been overshadowed by her husband’s infidelity. There are other common examples of the work-versus-relationship struggle –the businessman who goes on trips and misses his children’s events, a man who leaves behind his first love for a job opportunity, the tireless inventor who spends more time in the lab than with his wife.

Brooks argues that relationships are what are really important.  “[E]conomic and professional success exists on the surface of life, and…emerge[s] out of interpersonal relationships, which are much deeper and more important,” he says. Brooks cites various studies, which claim that a marriage is the “psychic gain equivalent of a $100,000” and that “meeting with a group at least once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income.”

In other words, the idea is that work is a shallow, materialistic necessity surpassed in importance by the spiritual, personal value of a relationship. Indeed, it is easy to see why a relationship is a spiritual value worth its weight in money. Personal relationships bring immense benefit to one’s life in many ways. The connection between two people can serve as a source of strength in difficult times, and a means to celebrate and enjoy success. A relationship can inspire one to be a better person by observing the good in a friend or lover and wanting to emulate it, or can help one grow through the guidance of a mentor.

But is work as empty by comparison as Brooks would lead us to believe? Is what a man does from the hours of 9 to 5 so surface-level that it should take a back seat to the depths of meaning found in one’s relationships?

Not necessarily. Consider the following perspective:

“The object of living is work, experience, and happiness. There is joy in work. All that money can do is buy us someone else’s work in exchange for our own. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something.”

That was said by Henry Ford, who was no stranger to long hours. As Ford indicates, what one accomplishes through his work does provide a spiritual value: the pride that comes from knowing that you are working towards your own happiness, and the satisfaction that this knowledge brings you. This is why a person feels elated after accomplishing a difficult task: because all values, spiritual and material, have to be created before they can be enjoyed. Inherent in the process of creation is work – the effort it takes to make values real – and just as the end result is rewarding, so is the process. And since work deals with the creation of values, it follows that there is no other place in a man’s life where he can express his creativity to its fullest potential.

Clearly, productive work can and ought to be personally fulfilling.  But where does this put one’s career in comparison to one’s personal relationships?  Consider a hypothetical relationship between two people who undertake no productive endeavors, neither work nor vigorous hobbies.  What would such a relationship consist of?  There would be no ambitions to share, no accomplishments to celebrate, no independent growth to encourage or experience in the other person.  Such a relationship would be ultimately empty, an association between two barely-existing people.

In contrast, the best relationships demonstrate the necessity of a productive foundation. One’s work creates not only the material possessions one enjoys, but also one’s character. It is central to achieving integrity, honesty, and a sense of self-worth, all of which help form the substance that rewarding relationships are made of.

The argument that work is a lowly activity compared to the nobler, transcendent nature of relationships is a classic philosophical view. But there is no basis for this dichotomy. To view relationships as more important than work is like viewing water as more important than food. Both are vital for a full life.

Of course, it can be difficult to integrate one’s working life with one’s interpersonal relationships in a way that makes the best of both.  What’s important is to grant both of them the emphasis they deserve, and to appreciate the way they fuel and enhance each other.  So to the question “what’s more important, work or relationships?” we can answer: both.

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