3 min read

031 - On The Value Of Work - Moral Letters for Modern Times

The true value of work is when it brings you not possessions, but self-possession, and knowledge of what is worth pursuing and what can be safely cast aside.
Small boats moored along a quiet lake - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

Deuteros, I see you clearly among the crowd. By your actions you turn your potential into practice. Keep along in this fashion, and you will be successful in the ways that matter most. You will learn self-knowledge and self-possession, and from these you will know which things are to be valued and which are to be shunned. Thus will you have the elements for a happy life.

Your progress is under constant threat, not least when you are in the presence of other people. They will push you and pull you, and exhort you to one course after another, because that is the way of society. The direction of travel does not matter so much as going along with the crowd, wherever it is headed. We can tolerate a foe in our midst more easily than a free thinker. The enemy’s purpose and maneuvers we understand, while the independent-minded is unpredictable and subversive. If you do not wish to be a traitor to your own thoughts, you must remove yourself from the presence of those constantly trying to influence them.

During the 40-day period of Lent, Christians live simply and give up luxuries so as to bring themselves closer to God. The month of Ramadan for Muslims similarly calls upon the faithful to fast from all food and drink from dawn to sunset. It is not just the body, but also the mind, that is to be sharpened by this rigor: avoiding anger, envy, and other failings. There is wisdom here, Deuteros, but also folly. If we are put on the path to virtue by relinquishing vices and reflecting on what is truly important, why would we tread that path for but a fraction of our time? Is a man wise who is sober on Monday and mindless the rest of the week?

No, my dear Deuteros, if you want to maintain your happiness more than momentarily, you must be the permanent master of your thoughts. Having painstakingly snared a cage full of sparrows, would you release them all only to start chasing them again the next day? If you lapse, let it be because of an inadvertent slip rather than relaxing your grasp. Hold steady, and hold fast to what you have gained. This is serious work, and deserves your sincere attention.

The work of ordering your mind is worthwhile, but do not make the mistake of thinking that all work is equally worthy. Work itself is not its own reward. We all know the aging executive haunting the office halls who says that without work they have no purpose. Without their title, their perks, and their pay, they would be cast adrift. I say there is little purpose to such a one’s work. The ox labors mightily plowing one furrow after the other, but for all its exertions it neither knows nor cares in which direction it is pointed.

“How can I be sure,” you ask “if the work that I am doing is worthwhile?” Only if you purposefully approach your work will your work have a purpose. The aim cannot be only money, or prestige, or power, although these may be by-products of your efforts. If such fruits of your labor come your way, by all means enjoy them. But you must guard yourself to ensure that to go without is no Lenten abstinence or Ramadan fast. Do not value a thing if possessing more of it brings you farther from contentment and peace.

Fortune gives and Fortune takes away, and it is not up to us to determine the portions we will receive. You are not made better by your possessions, nor are you made less by lacking them. So why make yourself unhappy by wishing for what you do not have?

The true value of work is when it brings you not possessions, but self-possession, and knowledge of what is worth pursuing and what can be safely cast aside. The wise farmer protects the freshly planted crop from predators and plows under the weeds. Each invasive plant you allow to take root will later steal water and light from your crop, reducing your yield. And even if one or two weeds will not overtake your field, remember that weeds grow unaided and multiply unseen.

Be well.

Next Letter →
Overview of All Letters ↑