"Work is the only avenue to genuine self-respect. Work develops independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and character. Without real work we will inevitably find despair, no matter how much money or power we have. Work … produces spiritual rewards unrelated to the reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychologists, but only if we tackle it gladly, without resentment."
What Gatto is speaking of here is not just physical labor or bureaucratic pencil-pushing. Work that creates self-respect has meaning. And that meaning comes from service, challenge, practicality, responsibility, free choice, and genuine self-expression, with simple goals like the common good and enriching life for others, including non-human life forms. Not abstract, but in clear, specific, and immediate ways.
For instance, as a child, my work in school was mostly a drab grey mush of meaninglessness. A few exceptions stand out – using a projection machine to learn to read faster when I was in sixth grade; making boxes in middle school shop class; FFA agronomy judging in tenth grade. Choice was key in every one of these exceptions. Mostly I experienced despair in school, and not all of that was from growing up transgendered in a world that didn't recognize it.
Sadder still, growing up on a ranch, I had natural meaning in work, caring for the animals we raised. Yet because that work was coerced, much of it was not meaningful and I did it poorly. Not all. I found deep meaning in caring for my own horse, and did it willingly. But there, I was doing it out of love, and "tackle[d] it gladly, without resentment.
So choice, or perception of choice, is vital in finding meaning in work. I believe it was one of the ancient Greek sages who said, "Nothing of value to the individual is obtained through coercion."
Today, I'm a bureaucrat, a government pencil-pusher. I suspect many people don't find much meaning in that, but I find the deepest meaning in my work in the service I do for others. This comes from guiding homeowners through the permitting process for building or remodeling their homes, and it comes from using the skills and knowledge I've obtained through years of carpentry work and architectural training and experience to ensure that the structures people build will be safe and durable. Sometimes the limits of the building code frustrate me in those goals, but mostly they provide useful parameters. Even in those moments of frustration, though, meaning can come, because part of my work is to suggest changes to the building code that will better meet the needs of society – that will better support the common good.
I find the tie to "original sin" tenuous, yet if that is the concept of the human condition, it works. Ultimately, it doesn't matter why the human condition is this way. What matters is that it is this way. The routes to meaningful, real work are many, and the meaning is found in our individual choices, in what is important to us as individuals, whether it be self-expression, as in painting the Sistine Chapel, or the practical physical labor of building a house. That there is so much dissatisfaction with work in our society, I believe, is a function of being unable to find the meaning in what we do. I suspect much of that inability is taught in the compulsory school system, where our children spend much of their most formative years doing work that benefits no one, without choice. I suspect it is carried on into our adult lives, and translates into addiction, broken families and marriages, and the unhappiness and despair so many of us find in our work.
The human condition is such that work is, indeed, a four letter word – but one that equates with "love," not "crap." Kahlil Gibran said, "Work is love made visible." If it isn't, there's something wrong.