Work and career are areas of my life I’ve struggled with for quite a while. My first big career idea didn’t work out, and then I just kept bouncing around to random jobs and ventures.
It’s comforting to know that Saint Ignatius, (founder of the Jesuits), also had a non-linear career path. He was a soldier who had dreams of becoming a knight and winning the affections of a “noble lady.”
He was wounded in battle and during his recovery, he began reading the stories of the saints because there weren’t any other books lying around (there weren’t any Kindles back then).
Inspired by the lives of the Saints, Ignatius figured he could “best” their lives. He gave up all his wealth and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, funding his travels through begging.
In a moment of enlightenment, Ignatius felt that God wanted him to be flexible in his service to Him and to pursue further education. During his stint in Spain at various schools and at the University of Paris, Ignatius and a few friends continued their ministry. The group then went to Rome and Ignatius founded The Society of Jesus.
The initial change in Ignatius’ career ambitions was dramatic. Ignatius was an aspiring knight who decided to become a Christian beggar.
From there he had to discern how God wanted him to proceed with his life. It was during this period in his life that he developed the Spiritual Exercises which I am now participating in.
Adding God to the element of career planning is certainly new to me, but hey, who knows better than God how I should spend my workweek?
James Martin dedicates an entire chapter of his book, The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, to applying Ignatian spirituality to your work life.
The chapter offers advice on how to find the right career path for you, but it doesn’t seem that different from modern career advice. Jesuit advice takes into account your interests, your personality and the reality of your situation. For example, if you find yourself drawn to working with people one-on-one, you might enjoy a career in counseling. There might be a clear path to do that. However, if you find yourself drawn to becoming a professional baseball player, it doesn’t mean you have the ability to.
It’s more nuanced than that, but what was most interesting to me is learning how to be happier at the job you currently have. Here are some Jesuit insights that I feel are particularly useful for people who want to maintain a health relationship with their work.
The Dignity of Work
Martin writes that “no job, when done freely, is ignoble” and “no work, done freely and with good intention is undignified.”
This is a hard lesson to grasp, especially for young people like myself who were told they could do anything. When assigned a menial or trivial task, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you are too good for the work, that you should be focused on greater and more important things.
But that mindset is the fast path to discontentment.
The Stoics would have a slightly different but similar take on menial tasks and the dignity of work. They would say that you do not control the work assigned to you, but you do control your perception of the work and how well you do the work. It is only by accepting this that you can be content.
In Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. However, Camus concludes that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The Stoics and Camus emphasized the mental freedom you can achieve in your work if you realize it is your attitude that is making you discontent. The Jesuits emphasize the dignity of work in relation to God.
Regardless, it takes away the focus from the work and places it on your perception of the work.
Understanding the dignity of work comes when we realize that we are, as theologians say, “cocreators” with God. In the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius asks us to imagine ourselves “laboring” with God and God “laboring” on our behalf. We work with God to build a better world. And God sees the fruit of our labor, even if others cannot.
This is wise, but I find it difficult to adapt this mindset when working on Powerpoints and Excel spreadsheets that don’t have an obvious or immediate impact.
Still, it’s far more useful than say, quitting your job as soon as you are assigned something you feel is beneath you.
Acceptance of Failure
Failure is trendy right now, at least in tech start-up circles. Americans, especially, have a high tolerance for failure. Having a failed business or hitting a career setback is not a permanent black mark on your character, it is just the nature of things.
But just because it is accepted culturally, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept personally.
The second Ignatian insight into work is acceptance of failure. While we should use our self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism, there is no guarantee that we will always succeed. Accepting this—on the job, in the home, or in life—is an important way to embrace what Walter Ciszek termed the “reality of the situation” and understand our own humility and poverty of spirit.
If you are ambitious, you will be harder on yourself than others would if you fail at something. It’s hard to get over. I still have a chip on my shoulder for failing to achieve my ambitions to become a SEAL.
However, it’s best to accept the experience as an exercise in humility.
No matter how hard we work, there are some things we are powerless to change, and failure does not lie in laziness or foolishness or poor planning. Work can sometimes be a well of great suffering.
Men and women who are laid off suddenly, whose businesses collapse, who face failures in the workplace know this. The mystery of suffering invades the working world, and this insight must be an essential part of a spirituality of work: in some aspects we are powerless, and our efforts seem fruitless. Here the mystery of suffering comes to the fore.
Reliance on God
Americans loves individualism. We love stories of the lone entrepreneur who fights longs odds and setbacks and eventually becomes a great success.
But those stories never describe how helpless those entrepreneurs can feel at times, how burdensome their enterprise can be.
How good would it feel if you believe you had some divine force working with you? Would your work seem more bearable?
I think so. Even though I can’t quite believe that there is a divine being who has my back, I love the idea of it.
St. Ignatius was a hard worker who nonetheless knew that everything he had accomplished was thanks to God. This attitude is freeing, since we recognize that we’re not working on our own, we have a partner in our labors, and, moreover, we cannot do everything on our own.
But, ancient Greece and ancient Rome — people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, O.K.? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.
Believing that you are the source of all your work is empowering, but also exhausting and frightening. Better to rely on “daemons” or God to help shoulder the burden.
It’s only in the post-industrial era that we have so many career options to choose from.
It’s a luxury, but because of that luxury, many of us have never learned to hold the proper attitude towards work and career, and it makes us unhappy.
Jesuit insight can help alleviate some of that unhappiness.
Though they respect the pursuit of finding your vocation, they also acknowledge that it’s important to conduct all work with the proper attitude, even if it is just rolling a boulder up a hill.