The Thinking 

The Finest Occupations

May 5, 2009

There is an inherent good in all work. What is it?  





It is overwhelming and intimidating to think of all human occupations through the ages – the farmers, the soldiers, the sailors, the welders, the chefs, the priests, the lawyers, the bankers, the bank robbers, the insurance agents, the politicians, the mechanics, the journalists, the professors, the yoga teachers, the police, the computer programmers, the actors, the doctors, the nurses, and on and on.

It is a pleasant exercise to imagine being something else in one’s own time or, even better, in another place and another time.

There are far too many enticing possibilities to contemplate them all, but an Elizabethan lady-in-waiting or a sailor on one of the great trading vessels that plied the Atlantic in the 18th century would come to mind if a career counselor allowed me to pick from all of time.

Even better is the shepherd’s life. That would be the one. To be a shepherd in fifth century B.C., on an island in Greece, or a shepherd in the hills of Britain after the worst of its invasions or a shepherd from a landlocked Hebrew tribe during a time of peace – these all seem highly enviable.

There are hazards and humiliations to a shepherd’s life, to be sure. Lambs fall off cliffs, get sick or stolen and are eaten by wolves. Ewes need help giving birth and violent storms thicken the plot. The shepherd may stray far from home and what if he has an accident such as a broken leg when he is out in the field? For all this, he is never well-paid.

I don’t mean to underestimate his trials, but the bad things seem minor compared to the good.  A shepherd’s life is elemental. There is plenty of time to walk and to think. The sky is overhead and open land stretches before him. He probably doesn’t own any of this land and so brings none of the landowner’s anxiety to the scene. His constant companions are submissive creatures, some of the most docile in the animal kingdom. They recognize his voice in the dark. His dog is trustworthy and reads his thoughts.

When I think of this wonderful existence and those days under the sky, I need to remind myself that the shepherd does not live in some pre-modern paradise.

There must be moments when he lays his head on his stone pillow at night and, surveying the limitless savannah of stars overhead, feels not simple wonder, but an unpleasant sensation. Or he may be on a cliff above the Ionian, observing the watery stretches for what seems to be the first time, when the same taut feeling comes to him, as if his blood had ceased to move.

His existence is simpler, but we cannot presume the shepherd is devoid of the universal occupational hazard. He too has moments of longing.

He may long for something concrete, such as his home or his wife or a woman who is not yet his wife or his friends or his other past times. He may long to be a farmer and not a shepherd. He may long for summer or for an illness to end. He may long for better pastures and more or less sheep.

Then again, he may long for something that has no tangible form. This is more than just desire. It is an acute and burning awareness of his own insufficiency.

He longs to know. It is not details or descriptions, facts or figures that are the objects of this desire. He wants essences. He wants to understand the unseen relations. He wants the harmony that explains. He is not an educated man, but he knows that his mind can encompass more than his own experience and more than he has ever learned. He is outside history and yet in it at the same time.

He does not possess great powers of comprehension. He is smart enough, however, to realize the knowledge he seeks could not be achieved by reason alone. If he possessed it, everything would be different. He would be oblivious to his radical separation from all of nature.

Our shepherd is a human being. We cannot expect him to be other than this. 

Perhaps then, in looking at his days, we can find some guiding principle for all human occupations. There must be something that links them all together. There must be some ideal they hold in common. Or is a retail clerk completely different from a lawyer and a housewife completely removed from an investment banker, with nothing, no shared goal in common?

People say that the highest purpose of our occupations is to express our individual talents. It’s true our fields of work are a great canvas on which to paint our skills. But, it seems this lofty purpose, as important as it is, is wildly exaggerated, leading to a strange and destructive phenomenon: the cult of the career.

If self-fulfillment is the highest purpose, many people –and there are very many of them – who choose their occupations out of expediency or circumstance or duty are left in the cold. Has our shepherd ever had the option to find his born career? Did he ever stop and think what he would most like to be? His work was likely given to him and he never questioned his rightness for it.

Money and material rewards, simple subsistence even – maybe these are highest in the scheme of things. They are extremely important. The problem is human beings seem to be generally dissatisfied with the idea of working for them alone. And, many would be consigned to constant dissatisfaction if these were truly supreme. How many get paid as much as they should or as much as they want?

 A common ideal must be something everyone can acquire if they try. What can the shepherd have that the movie star can have? What can the housewife have that the corporate president can have?
All of us can attain the goal of fulfilling our duties. This too is a genuine good in work and one of the most satisfying of its ends. But, even beyond that, there seems to be something still higher. There seems to be only one ultimate end. It must be this: Reality. Through our work, we can have a close encounter with truth and meaning in what is.

The occupation or daily job is more than just a canvas on which to paint a beautiful self-portrait. The shepherd looks at the sky. He is not a single man, but all men.

What truth and meaning does he find in his work? The shepherd finds this: he is master and slave. He is ruler and ruled. In this, he is no different from men in vastly more powerful positions. Everyone is potentially master and slave. That is reality. Even the slave can be master and slave. At the very minimum, he governs himself and his own exterior.

Not everyone chooses to accept this inherent good in all work. These are the perpetually aggrieved: the workaholics, the driven careerists, the drones with contempt for their days. They include the rich and poor, the successful and unsuccessful, the ambitious and non-ambitious, the exquisitely-trained and the low-skilled. They are in a state of self-imposed misery, searching in their work for a complete mastery or a complete servility it can never offer.

The shepherd rules his flock. A housewife governs her sphere. Beyond all they control, there are powerful forces they cannot domesticate. There is an unseen hierarchy and they must find their rightful place in it, a place with something below and something above. This reality is a parcel of the knowledge the shepherd craves. To know it is to live fully.

It’s not right to envy anyone, but consider the shepherd’s days. His feet touch the earth and his eyes find the horizon. His sheep recognize the sound of his voice. It seems a good life.

But, it’s no use. I would not trade places with him if I could.  When I shake my dust rag in the wind, I think: “Is there any greater occupation than this?” A judicious servitude is the greatest of all goods.

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