Order, Disorder, Reorder

Why does work feel like work?

Here is the end at the beginning: work is frustrating. It can be extremely satisfying to produce something, but it can be simultaneously excruciating – but what excellence and beauty can come from deep suffering. Early on in the semester, a man named Jeremy Begby spoke at Cornell.[1] He talked about music, art, and faith. He used a three part arc to explain a phenomenon in music that draws us in, much as a good story draws in: order, tension, reorder.[2] Over the course of the semester, this three part play has come back to me. I was recently listening to an “On Being” podcast where Franciscan Monk Richard Rohr described it in similar terms: order, disorder, reorder. Order describes an existing or created structure. Disorder describes the critique of, dismantling of, or a misstep in the ordered structure. Reorder describes resolution of the disorder and is distinctly different from the original order. I believe this arc can help explain why work can feel at once so frustrating and at the same time so satisfying.

If I had to offer a simple definition of work, it would be labor – labor as a noun and labor as in the act of laboring. Both labor and work imply that some kind of effort is being put forth, whether mentally or physically. Work must not always be hard or taxing, but it seems that “taxing” might be a good way to describe most people’s reactions to “work.” Furthermore, work often seems to have precarious relationship with morality. To explore these ideas we need to take a step back and think about humanity’s relationship with work through time.

The history of work in this nation has been tenuous. On the one hand, there is the historically institutionalized “Protestant work ethic” from which Americans still derive much of their work habits. On the other hand, there is the forced labor of the trans-atlantic slave trade, later also influenced by warped forms of Christianity and false theologies of work advanced for the purpose of social control. With these foundational events in mind, an excellent way to frame and examine the institution of Work in America is the tension between labor and capital, and from there, the tension between work and leisure. When we begin to understand the existing order, we can move toward constructively critiquing it.

We have created a remarkable global economic order for ourselves, but there are goods and services that can be produced and offered that the system does not seem to value. For example, we value motherhood differently from a trade (such as carpentry or plumbing), from an IT job, from a nursing job. Many people, upon discerning the constructed order, have perceived the ways in which it falls short, and therefore, rightfully criticize it. Let me be clear, questioning the order is not wrong; it is in fact what Mr. Begby would call “tension” and what Mr. Rohr would call “disorder.” What is wrong is to remain in the stage of disorder, completely disregard the order, and not move toward a resolution. To see how frustration and potential suffering can come from the institution of Work in America is to (consciously) move through the cycle of order, disorder, reorder.

As Christians, Mr. Begby, Mr. Rohr, and I, find the arc of order, disorder, and reorder in the Scriptures. Think of the Israelites who were given God’s laws in the Torah. The first five books of the Bible read as laws and rules only sprinkled with grace for those of us who know the reorder found in Jesus. This is God’s order for his people. But the order was only the beginning of the plan to redeem humanity, and the Israelites got so caught up in the order that they began to value the order more than the giver of the order. The prophets ushered in an era of disorder. The order stood while the prophets brought God’s correction and promises of redemption and deliverance – all hinting at a future reorder. The principle reorder is Jesus. He is the reorder from which every other reorder flows. Jesus threatened (and continues to threaten) social, political, and economic systems – orders we have created for ourselves.[3]

Moreover, Jesus is order, disorder, and reorder in the flesh. He fulfilled God’s original order, but criticized the self-importance, self-righteousness, and ignorance in humanity, speaking truth to the condition of man’s heart, all while bringing a message of compassion, grace, and love. Jesus, the man, models for us how we should move through order, disorder, and reorder when confronting situations.

That Jesus moved through order, disorder, and reorder should embolden us to do the same with our surroundings. The other pieces of the Bible narrative that illuminates the issue of work are the Creation and Fall stories. To keep it brief, God created work with the original created order, and he declared it “good.” When Adam and Eve sinned, work was cursed. God frustrated the work of man, perhaps to continually display the consequences of sin in a way that would cause humanity to recognize their inherent finiteness in light of an infinite God. These consequences do not mean that God loves us any less (in fact, one could argue that God’s discipline proves his love); however, they do have implications for the work order in the world we live in today. Our world is full of pain and suffering; Work is not an exempt cause from a host of causes of pain and suffering. We can alleviate some of the suffering associated with work around the world, but we must face the reality that work itself is often accompanied by suffering.

Each stage of order, disorder, and reorder comes with its own very real physical and emotional labor. The conscious decision to move through the arc in processing a situation is its own labor. Allow me to spend the remainder of this article sifting through some orders I have noticed, critiquing them, and offering some perspectives informed by my understanding of the redemptive power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The key to endurance and perseverance here is understanding: 1) that you are not alone in your questioning and criticizing; and 2) remembering and being comforted by the fact that God created work as an inherently good thing, and despite what Christians call “the fall,” there is hope of future redemption found in Jesus. Question boldly, my friends.

We can all agree that a functioning society needs people working in many or all sectors of the economy in order to thrive. It is necessary to place an economic value on a specific job and a specific job function for the purpose creating structure; however, Americans seem to have a difficult time separating the assigned economic value of a job function from the worth of the person carrying out that function. This shortcoming reveals the very real propensity Americans have to turn their work into their identity, and as a result, how easy it is to unjustifiably devalue our colleagues and neighbors. We must carefully consider the economic orders we have created and evaluate them for their successes and shortcomings. By critiquing the shortcomings in a way that does not ignore the successes of the order, we can move to a reordering that takes into account the inherent value of all persons.

Furthermore, the necessary distribution of jobs or Work in American society can be a daunting beast to face due to the towering dreams concerning our work and subsequent identities we have spent lifetimes building. After having spent thirteen years in perpetual intellectual stimulation, being faced with the repeating rhythms of the work world can be intimidating. Being thrust into the mundane can feel incredibly frustrating; it is very much a disorder to the student order. Or perhaps it can be seen as a reorder to the disillusionment felt as a student. On more than one occasion I have questioned why I had to write a paper or what use studying for my next prelim was when I could be feeding a hungry person. But the reality that higher education can open opportunities for greater efficacy in community work keeps me going. This is plunging into disorder by confronting the failures of the created orders of education and distribution of resources, but seeing the redeeming value in higher education, no matter how unequal access to resources is in the world.

I hope to have illustrated to some degree the extent to which existing in the American institution of Work can feel frustrating and taxing. Humanity is often sacrificed on the altar of profit or production. Think about it as a Cornell student. We have heaps and heaps of work to do that, whether tedious or exceedingly fascinating, require a special attention. We are expected to perform at a certain level, perhaps by our families, our peers, and even by ourselves. But what happens when the work is frustrated? What happens when one assignment is compromised by studying for a prelim? What happens when you experience writer’s block, but your final paper is due very soon? There is something redeeming and satisfying about pushing through the frustration of Work to reach a conclusion or a finished product. There is beauty in reorder. And while today’s reorder may not be a lasting reorder or the final reorder in your life, there is something necessarily satisfying about it. The crucible that is order, disorder, and reorder creates beauty and life from darkness and void.


1 Jeremy Begbie, “Why The Arts Matter to Faith” (Concert at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, February 10, 2017).

2 Richard Rohr, interview with Krista Tippett, On Being, podcast audio, April 13, 2017. https://onbeing.org/programs/richard-rohr-living-in-deep-time/

3 Richard Rohr, “The Invitation of Grace”, Get Control of Your Life. March 24, 2016. http:// getcontrolofyourlife.org/2016/03/24/the-invitation-of-grace/


Emani Pollard is a senior in the ILR School at Cornell University. She hopes to attend law school and hopes to build a career on service and advocacy. Tea brings her great joy.

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