Finding Rest for Our Souls

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Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you will find rest for our souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Matthew 11: 29- 30

In my generation, one of the great achievements was to be the first in one’s family to attend college. One of our parents’ greatest goals, and one for which they worked tirelessly, was to make that possible, for they understood that the nature of their children’s work in life and, thus, their status in the society was determined by the level of their education. Those whose lives consisted of the grueling labor of their hands and the sweat of their brows were determined that the lives of their children would be different. The basic understanding was that with education would come the ability to work with one’s head rather than one’s hands and that such work would be less difficult and burdensome and would allow for a longer and fuller life due to less physical stress and strain and more leisure.

The truth of the matter has become, in large part, that although many now labor at less physically demanding jobs, the added leisure has not materialized and, while advances in medicine have somewhat extended our lifespan, the stress, strain and anxiety of life has, if anything, only increased. How is it that what was intended to increase our rest and leisure has actually led to the opposite?

Secular culture, particularly in its hyper-capitalistic strain, “advances” through the energy of ambition and competition. From its perspective, “progress” come through an energy provided by the desire for increased recognition and status. The recent New York Times stories concerning the atmosphere of the Amazon workplace, while apparently somewhat partial, remind us of the stress and strain that pervades the lives of those who are rising and successful in the workforce. When the envy, competition, and need for recognition that are manifestations of our pride form drive our lives, the burdens we experience become unsupportable. We cannot afford to rest and to play because we shall then fall behind, in our work or in relationship to others.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us that we learn rest from the one who is meek and humble of heart. Thus, it is in learning, for our part, how to be meek and humble that our souls discover rest for our souls. What does this mean concretely? Perhaps it means to devote ourselves to transforming the motivation for our work.

On the one hand the transformation of our work motivation requires that we ask ourselves what we are working for. Is our work our humble but devoted effort to serve the well being of others and the world in whatever small way we can? Do we make the choice, in a consistent way, to be a servant rather than a master in the situation that confronts us? Do we see the task before us, whatever its nature, as God’s call to us to be an instrument of God’s peace, mercy, and love? Do we work out of love of God and the world or rather out of fear for our own value and status?

Secondly, we can take small steps toward transforming our motivation in work by attending to how we work. Especially from the birth of the production line, quantity has increasingly superseded quality as the goal of our efforts. The goal is to get done as much as possible in as little time as possible. This disposition has infiltrated into every aspect of our being and consciousness, becoming one of the largest sources of the burdens of anxiety and stress in our lives. Within the parameters of what is possible in a culture that demands speed, can we practice doing our work with a bit more deliberation and care? Can we slow down a bit?

To slow down would require of us that we lean something of the meekness and humility of Jesus. We all experience the anxiety and worry that we are not up to the task before us. This is what, at least in part, pushes us to get the job done so that we may, for a moment or two, experience relief from that anxiety. To be meek and humble is to realize that in every situation we are limited, and that, given the shorties of our lives, our contribution to the whole is a small one. However we attempt to deny it, we can only do what we are able to do. To trust that God never asks of us more than we can do, even if others do ask that, allows us to give all we have in the way and at the speed we can. If we are working out of love, then we can, in a mode of trust and rest, give ourselves totally to the task, but within the boundaries of our physical, emotional, and spiritual limits.

I often find that I get most tired when I look at the demands of the work ahead and realize that those demands, as I interpret them, are beyond my capacities. That burden, however, is one that I inflict on myself out of my own fears and sense of pride. The yoke I am carrying is that of the expectations of my culture and superego. Today Jesus invites us to lay down that yoke and to take up his yoke. It is the yoke that recognizes that we have been given life for a brief time to serve the world in our unique but limited way, and that we are asked but to “do our bit” meekly and humbly. If we do, we shall know rest, both in our work and in our leisure.

How do we become work fixated? It is by forgetting how to live leisurely. How does that happen? By not allowing ourselves to be chosen. We forget to listen to what is asked of us. As a consequence, our lives are split between work and leisure—work being what we have to do, leisure encompassing what we want to do. From this point onward we have two choices. We can try to safeguard one world from the other or we can choose to avoid the conflict by accenting one at the expense of the other. This results in our working all of the time or in being unable to work at all. It is the heavy price we pay for failing to listen to what is asked of us in life.

Knowing what is asked is never as clearly grasped as a fact is. Neither is it unknown in quite the way that something escapes our comprehension. There comes a time when we realize that we have to limit, arrange, and participate in life with the prospect of death before us. It is then that we have an almost undeniable realization of what is asked of us in life. Such a realization changes us. The change is not always a conscious one. Neither is it something that happens only in old age. It can occur in youth. It is always a sign of adulthood.

Martin C. Helldorfer The Work Trap, p. 39

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