(Christian Courier column, October, 2013)
I recently spent ten days at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton. Not as a patient, mind you; just as a supportive sister. It was a lot of time in waiting rooms. I overheard conversations ranging from the ludicrous (a heated exchange between housekeeping staff as to whether Rogers or Fido is the better service provider, punctuated with unprintable expressions of conviction), to the heartbreaking (a man on his Bluetooth emphasizing sternly that the doctor had better get over here and show some interest in his mother whom he’d found in a near catatonic state) to the hallowed (a sensitive medic comforting a dying patient’s daughter with profound empathy).
Hung on the outside walls of St. Joe’s are supersized photos of its celebrity medical professionals. Dr. Bobby Shayegan, who performed my brother-in-law’s intricate five-hour surgery, grinned at us with likable boyish charm each morning as we headed down the mountain to the hospital. Ubiquitous posters inside the building invited us to “say thanks to your miracle workers here at St. Joe’s!”
But it wasn’t the “miracle workers” who most intrigued me. It was the custodial staff and service workers. I wondered about how and why they ended up here. They probably didn’t grow up aspiring to clean bathrooms, fill orders of “medium decaf, two sweeteners, three milk” or glance cursorily at my salad, intone “$6.80, please,” and hand me my change while already tabulating the contents of the lunch tray of the customer behind me.
Commencement speakers like to accentuate the positive: “Follow your dreams; don’t settle for less than doing what you love.” Surveying my own family and friends, few of us are working at our dream careers. Most of us are happy to have a job that pays the bills. “Generation next,” the millennials, will have an even tougher time. Financial Post analyst Ray Williams posits: “Career paths are being reshaped – some say permanently – in part because of the massive movement toward temporary employment. These changes will be felt most by young people, who face the prospect of a lifetime of temporary or part time work, an uncertain career path, and an lower standard of living with little or no payoff for their post-secondary education” (“How temporary work will reshape our careers and our economy,” June 12, 2013).
The work given us
I respect those who simply do their best at whatever job they have regardless of how or why they got there. I watched a custodian clean the main lobby at St. Joe’s. He had rakish hair, sprinkled with grey. He sported a brassy gold necklace along with his khaki pants and shirt. In a suit, he could have passed for a professor. After the chairs had been removed, he cordoned off the area and polished the floor with a mini-Zamboni. Balancing on a ladder, he painstakingly vacuumed each ceiling tile above him, his mouth dropping open in concentration. (I refrained from warning him that this is a good way to inadvertently swallow a dead fly or choke on a cobweb). He wiped the sprinklers with a flourish. He didn’t dawdle. He didn’t rush.
I was reminded of “The Struggle for an Education,” a story from the old NUCS (National Union of Christian Schools) Pilot Series that I loved sharing with my students. Booker T. Washington, former slave and prominent African-American educator, relates the hardships and bigotry he endured as he travelled across the country on foot to apply at Hampton Agricultural Institute. The head teacher, a “Yankee” woman, was plainly reluctant to register him. He waited anxiously as others were waved on ahead. Finally, she instructed him to sweep the recitation room. He didn’t flinch or protest. He swept, dusted and cleaned the room with alacrity. Three times. Upon inspecting the room thoroughly and not finding one particle of dust, the headmistress declared, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”
How you do your work puts your character on display. American poet Wallace Stevens, also an insurance agent, said, “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.” He composed his poems on his way to and from work.
The Book of Common Prayer (1662) offers a petition that remains relevant today:
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life
shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with
thy people where they work; make those who carry on
the industries and commerce of this land responsive to thy
will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just
return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who
liveth and reigneth with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.