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The Work of Culture and Civilization

This article is excerpted from Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, newly made available in a second edition.

The Power

We know, as soon as reminded, that work spins the wheels of the world.

No work? Then nothing else either. Culture and civilization don’t just happen. They are made to happen and to keep happening—by God the Holy Spirit, through our work.

Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the store shelves, gas pumps dry up, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end and utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in tents, and clothed in rags.

The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work. One of the mystifying facts of history is why certain people create progressive cultures while others lag behind. Whatever that explanation, the power lies in work.

Another interesting thing is that if all workers did quit, it would not make too much difference which workers quit first—front office, boardroom, assembly line, or custodial staff. Civilized living is so closely knit that when any pieces drop out, the whole fabric begins to crumple. Let city sanitation workers go out this week, and by next week streets are smothered in garbage. Give homemaking mothers leave, and many of us suddenly go hungry and see our kids running wild. Civilization is so fragile that we either all hang together or, as Ben Franklin warned during the American Revolution, “we shall all hang separately.”

Incidentally, let’s not make the mistake, if ever we are tempted, of estimating the importance of our work, or of any kind of work, by the public esteem it enjoys. Up-front types make news, but only workers create civilized life. The mosaic of culture, like all mosaics, derives its beauty from the contribution of each tiny bit.

The Harvest

As seeds multiply themselves into harvest, so work flowers into civilization. The second harvest parallels the first: Civilization, like the fertile fields, yields far more in return on our efforts than our particular jobs put in.
Verify that a moment by taking a casual look around the room in which you are now sitting. Just how long would it have taken you to make, piece by piece, the things you can lay eyes on?

Let’s look together.

That chair you are lounging in? Could you have made it for yourself? Well, I suppose so, if we mean just the chair!

Perhaps you did in fact go out to buy the wood, the nails, the glue, the stuffing, the springs—and put it all together. But if by making the chair we mean assembling each part from scratch, that’s quite another matter. How do we get, say, the wood? Go and fell a tree? But only after first making the tools for that, and putting together some kind of vehicle to haul the wood, and constructing a mill to do the lumber, and roads to drive on from place to place? In short, a lifetime or two to make one chair! We are physically unable, it is obvious, to provide ourselves from scratch with the household goods we can now see from wherever you and I are sitting—to say nothing of building and furnishing the whole house.

Consider everything else that we can use every day and never really see. Who builds and maintains the roads and streets we take for granted? Who polices them so we can move about in comparative safety? Who erects the stores, landscapes the parks, builds the freeways? Who provides the services that keep things going in good weather and bad?

Well, civilization blends work into doing all that. It’s what we mean by civilization, really—goods and services to hand when we need them. There are countless workers, just like ourselves – including ourselves – whose work creates the harvest that provides each of us with far more than we could ever provide for ourselves.

Going shopping? Someone’s work has already stocked the aisles with food, stuffed the racks with clothing, crowded counters with goods—for you!

Going traveling? Someone’s work has already paved the highways, built the airports, designed and fueled the planes— for you!

Going abroad? Someone’s work has already raised the cathedrals, painted the pictures, laid out the cities—for you!

Staying home? Someone’s work enlivens TV channels, prints the daily paper, keeps social order—for you!

In trouble? Someone’s work defies emergencies, defeats the storms, and has repairs ready—for you!

So everywhere and at all times, there are countless hands moving all the wheels of civilization—for you!

Work plants the seed; civilization reaps the harvest. Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others; civilization is the form in which others make themselves useful to us. We plant; God gives the increase to unify the human race.

Forgotten Something?

Oh, I know, you think I’ve forgotten something, and before you take a look around, you want to be sure it’s counted in.

You’re thinking that what I’ve been saying is sentimental, as if some celestial Santa Claus dropped everything into my living room by way of the chimney. In fact, nothing is free in this old world? Pay for whatever you want, or do without it? No two ways about that!

So, then, I’m forgetting that I’ve paid for whatever it is that I own and pay my share in taxes and profits for all the public and private services I enjoy? This is what you think I’ve ignored? No paycheck, nothing else?
Well, no, I thought of that—and read quite a few books on economics, from old Adam Smith to Karl Marx to Kenneth Galbraith to discover just how my paycheck does relate to all those things I own and use.
Funny thing, though, these experts didn’t help much.

It’s too simple for the experts, probably.

As I see it now, things stand like this: Our paychecks represent our working efforts in, say, 40 hours per week. Some bring in far more dollars than others, but just say that on the average each should in fact buy only what you or I could make for ourselves in the same 40 hours a week. (Economics is not that simple? Maybe not, but for now let it pass—because when you start looking seriously at the meaning of civilization, my way is how you will see it, too, I think).

At least we can agree that if we both worked not only forty but, say, one hundred and forty hours a week, we ourselves couldn’t make from scratch even a fraction of all the goods and services that we call our own. A funny thing happens, as they used to say, to a paycheck on its way to the bank. That paycheck turns out to buy us the use of far more than we could possibly make for ourselves in the time it takes us to earn the check. Money is the key that opens the storehouse of civilization, but a whole lot more comes flooding out through that door than we could make for ourselves in the time it takes to earn the key.

And that’s true, no matter how big the check becomes.

The experts, I say, don’t seem to explain that exactly.

But that’s the way it is.