When I began working on this series, I wanted to respond to the idea that “rioters simply need to get a job.” There is a certain naivete in suggesting that the right job could alleviate despair and serve as a sufficient source of human fulfillment. At the same time, many of us draw much of our psychological energy from the work we do. This is partly why so many adults spend so much time fantasizing about what they will be when they grow up. Yet, work alone is not enough. There is an inevitable crisis of self or personhood whenever one’s identity is based on work.
The prevalence of the midlife crisis is one wrinkle in the façade of career bliss. Such a crisis reveals a person adrift and dissatisfied, even amid what is considered the greatest blessing of the age. But a career is not enough; quite the reverse. It is only the individual who has discovered real identity and meaning who can find work, in a secondary sense, fulfilling. That is to say, such a person can bring something to work which work itself cannot provide. Such a person has been set free by Love. Love says quietly, “I do not love you because of what you do. I made you because I love you. I want you to be.” Gracious Love can transform the stage of human action into one of service and play because it removes from man the burden of performance. In this context, it becomes clear why a career could never be the source of such happiness.
The supreme crisis is not social or economic, but the existential, spiritual crisis of the person. Our contemporary social-economic conditions simply exacerbate this by misdiagnosis the underlying issue. But it would be wrong to ignore the deep importance of work in maintaining and integrating people psychologically and socially. In other words, although work is not itself a true source of fulfillment, those without work (or without meaningful work) often experience a kind of depersonalization which is both socially and psychologically alienating.
In every human being, there is a question of purpose, meaning, and worth. Those with careers have much at there disposal to answer or at least allay such questions, but those who have been displaced socially and economically are placed in a position which makes questions all that more urgent, and yet all that more difficult. Such individuals are under a double burden of spiritual and socio-economic distress.
With all that said, what is to be our response to socio-economic conditions? If they are not the very source of pain and despair, are they to be ignored. Certainly not! For what good is it if we merely tell our brother to go in peace and be filled? (James 2:16)
An unjust response to those in economic straits is to demand that they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But it is equally depersonalizing to make the government or economy the sole source of aid.
In the first case, that of individual responsibility, there is a kind of Ayn Rand egoism in which we ignore the fact that we all exist in community, that we all benefit and need to benefit from social connections. The enormous burden we ask such individuals to bare is one which we have never nor could ever bare by ourselves. I think of all the times I have refused or only begrudgingly showed up for work which was “beneath” my pay grade, which didn’t strike my fancy. The desire or motivation to work and contribute doesn’t just come from the an isolated will or work-ethic for most, but from a context of social, personal relationships which make like worth living. That some may work outside such a context, if such an ‘outside’ really exists, is a testimony to human perseverance, but it is not to be upheld as either an ideal or a satisfactory condition.
In the second case, in which the infrastructure is somehow made responsible for human well-being, we present a Marxist structure in which individual dignity is denied and reduced to the need for bread. Human freedom and the healthy pride of contribution is abolished. The alleviation of human suffering, of social or economic inequity, should not come at the price of personhood.
The answer to the riots is not to blame, but to seek out and understand these sources of despair. Only then can one respond, not simply by removing pain, but in treating others with real dignity. Part of human dignity means a recognition that economics cannot address our deepest needs. Another part of such dignity fosters an interdependence on one-another which is so structured to be bilateral rather than unilateral. In such a structure, the person can emerge in the context of his or her other. And this may and should happen for he or she on either side of the relational structure.
Finally, a note on work, a curse and blessing. Every job must at certain levels confront the individual with a level of the absurd, the pointless, and that which the soul recoils from. Therefore, despair can only be answered on a higher plane than the economic. The absurd and depersonalizing cannot be entirely eliminated from work, but some jobs will always present a much greater level of such alienating factors. It takes enormous spiritual resources not to be crushed by this, and finally, those resources are not simply a muscle that one trains, but must be nourished from within and without. The employer, the coworker, the friend, the community, and the consumer all can contribute to dignifying the worker through active love in gratitude, patience, respect.
Experiences of gratitude are tokens for individuals which may sometime be cashed-in in return for the memory and recognition of God’s ever present love and provision.