Created to Serve: The Telos of Work
As a senior, I get asked what one of my close friends calls the “Benjamin Braddock question” rather frequently: “What are you going to do after you graduate?” To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. However, regardless of whatever pursuit I take up upon graduation, I know why I will work. I make this distinction because I believe it is more important than what I do, or where I work.
Understanding the purpose of work brings meaning to what we do at Swarthmore. Swatties deeply desire to ‘make a difference’ in the world. In order to do this, we must first work. But in the midst of all this work, it can be easy for disillusionment and cynicism to take root; people become frustrated with their work. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is burnout. I believe we often lose sight of the purpose of work, the meaning of work, and the end goal of work. So, in this article, I explore what it means to work. Put simply: why do we work? What is the goal? In order to answer this question, I will borrow and modify Aristotle’s conception of a Telos, or ‘purpose.’
Aristotle’s Telos can be thought of as an ultimate object or aim. This Telos in Aristotle’s view is Eudemonia (flourishing), which Aristotle describes as “the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”1 Although Aristotle frames flourishing as an abstract end, I have taken this concept away from the philosophical and applied it. For me, this flourishing can be achieved through my work. In order to accomplish Eudemonia through work, we must have a goal. Otherwise, work feels meaningless. We must be working towards something. Meaningful work has a vision, a long-run mission.
What does this end goal, or Telos, look like? Put simply, it can be expressed as service. There is a dual purpose to work as service: serving other’s needs, and through that, serving a higher aim or ideal. This unique perspective is what is most important to me. I serve not because of some blind adherence to rules, or out of some Kantian conception of Duty. I believe that the work I do genuinely serves others, fulfilling the Telos of work, thereby reflecting the image of God.
I will illustrate this with a personal example: to many on campus, I am automatically associated with delicious food. Josh = cookies, as it were. But it goes deeper than that. Yes, I can bake cookies. That is one of the many talents God has gifted me with. But ultimately, if I use this talent to only serve myself (baking cookies so that only I can eat them), then it becomes hollow, shallow, and useless. Apart from being terrible for my personal health, eating all the cookies myself gives me little joy. I have to share them and serve others with that gift. My faith is the reason behind my actions and is no small part of why I have used the gift of hospitality to serve others. However, even if people do not understand or share the faith behind my service, people still benefit from my work, and ultimately, this reflects the image of God. It is still of benefit to society too! As Lester DeKoster put it, “Work is the gift of self to the service of others that becomes the fabric of civilization.”2 Interestingly, this service ends up benefiting me in some ways as well, since “civilization is the gift of others to the service of ourselves.”3 These ‘dual pathways’ reinforce the reciprocal nature of work. Both parties give and receive work, creating a positive cycle of service: individuals can use their unique talents in various ways to serve one another. This view frames work in a new way: work is not just an endless sacrifice; it allows everyone to feel intrinsically valuable, by being able to contribute in some way.
In what ways can we contribute? How do we best serve? And where? One way of framing the answer to these questions is through contemplating the idea of vocation. Vocation comes from the Latin word vocātiō and means “a call.” As Fredrick Buchner phrased it, “[t]he place where we are called to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is where we find meaning: the place where our gifts meet the world’s deepest needs.
While methods of service differ from person to person, because our gifts are different, the service is equally meaningful. For example, people can make important contributions to society through both the arts and through business. But how do we contribute? How do we determine how best to use our gifts? This is done through human creativity.
Creativity is a uniquely human trait. Ironically, both Marx4 and Ayn Rand5, ideologically polar opposites, agree that creativity is essential to what makes us human. But this concept is much older than those theorists; it goes back to the beginning of time. Author Andy Crouch6 draws from Genesis the Biblical imagery of gardening where humans cultivate creativity.7 In the context of Swarthmore, we are developing our gifts by figuring out what we can do, and where we can do it through education. We must develop creativity in order to effectively serve.
Despite our creativity, the process of work is often frustrating. It often does not feel meaningful, whether it is or not, and the burdens of creative work weigh heavy on our shoulders. We frequently become exhausted, overworked, and burned out. As a student, I recall many times where I sat alone at 2 AM, working on papers or think pieces that only my professor would read, thinking to myself “I can’t do this anymore; I haven’t seen the light of day in a week; Why am I running on caffeine, and not sleeping?” These Ecclesiastical notions of meaninglessness frequently float their way into my brain. Sometimes I feel like it is just not worth persevering. I need to restore a sense of hope and resurrection in my work. In such moments, I find it necessary to maintain the discipline of Sabbath rest, pausing regularly to rest and restore creativity so that I might serve effectively.
The antidote to these frustrations and burnout that we experience is more than just realizing our work has meaning – it is also about taking time to pause and rest. I have experienced this rest. After a period of overworking myself at Swarthmore, my friends intervened and encouraged me to take time off and rest. Upon doing so, I discovered that I was more productive, and more engaged in conversation and also in class discussions. When I slept, I could actually stay awake in class. Who knew? Joking aside, I believe this self-discipline of Sabbath rest was created for us by God, enabling us to serve others through work.
In rediscovering the value of Sabbath rest, I find that I can serve with more fervor. Through persevering on my assignments and diligently laboring to complete all of my papers, I can glorify God. In the same way, I can serve more directly through my work when volunteering with a local organization through a Community Based Learning (CBL) class, an experience that has been the highlight of both my experiences abroad and my Swarthmore classes. Through all of this, I can serve and live out the Telos of work.
I would like to take a minute to encourage my fellow seniors with words of N.T. Wright, a prolific British theologian and author: “Our work will LAST.”8 It has eternal value. Long after we leave, what we have done here at Swarthmore will remain present, and we will be remembered. Know this: we make an impact beyond what we can see while at Swarthmore (or anywhere really). Our labor has not been in vain. The services we have performed, while often ignored, are what most resonate with others. Even if it is as simple as cookie baking, these actions can still make a difference for someone else. I once had someone thank me for a cookie I had given them weeks before. While I did not remember the act, this person felt encouraged enough to remember weeks later. Personally, I think the work God has done through me will not be in vain. I do believe that God created work for the service of others; this work builds a better world through us.
Some questions I would like to leave the reader of this piece: What do you work for? Is it ‘making the world a better place’? If so, why? What do you hope to accomplish through that? Is work ultimately meaningful without a goal? If not, what is the goal of your work?
There is no single answer for these questions, but I have found them helpful in thinking through my own life goal: to serve others using the gifts God has given me.
1 Aristotle, Ethics, Bk. 1 Ch. 7.
2 Lester DeKoster, Work: The Meaning Of Your Life, Ch. 7 [some of this article was inspired by his work].
4 For more information, see Capital by Karl Marx sections 23, 469, 474, 481, 484, 547, 614, 615, and 799. These sections discuss the relationship between creativity and alienation.
5 For more information, see The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The main character is a brilliant architect, and the main theme is human creativity. While I vehemently disagree with Rand’s Objectivism, she does point to creativity as humanity’s greatest strength.
6 Author’s note: Andy is the husband of Catherine Crouch, who teaches Physics here at Swarthmore.
7 For more information see Culture Making by Andy Crouch.
8 N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 179-180.
Josh Satre ’13 is from Hockessin, Delaware and is a special major in SCF Organizing and Cookie Baking. He enjoys crafting fine food and pairing it with delicious beverages, since the telos of both is to be shared with friends.
Image: kakisky from morguefile.com.