This past year introduced us all to a different way of life because of the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns and restrictions. The way we eat, rest, talk and breathe all seemed to change overnight. In addition to these essential activities, work is another facet of life that seemed to change with such speed. On this feast of St. Joseph, it appears that it would do us well to consider whether these changes have enhanced or weakened our work’s value and fruits.
The habit of “working from home” is not a cultural phenomenon introduced by the coronavirus. Before March, those who could and wanted to work from their home office had the resources to do it successfully. This impulse only became more popular or required when the coronavirus hit. Because we are unique beings with specific and unpredictable preferences, responses to this new way of “work-life” have been varied. Some are attracted to the casual atmosphere and convenient location that work-from-home allows; still, others need to get out of the house and want clear boundaries between their home life and work life.
Regardless of the trends, how should Catholics think about work-from-home vs. the traditional work-at-the-office setup? Is there a mean between the two extremes that attempts to reconcile the merits of accessibility and distinction?
The first principle that motivates my thinking on this issue is the truth that work is natural to us and, because of the fall, some of the work that we do will be toilsome (Gen. 3:17). A simultaneous embrace of work and the recognition that it will be difficult and will not, in itself, lead to our fulfillment seems to be in order. This is important to ward off the temptation of workaholism which, especially for men, can serve as an easy distraction from the responsibilities of their manhood and fatherhood under the guises of practical success or providing for the family. As someone who could occasionally be convicted for the vice of workaholism, it is clear to me that workaholism is not just excess work but rather a self-directed, masturbatory obsession with one’s own talents and a disordered understanding of the time he has been given.
The best way to combat this obsession seems to be an engagement with others and a critical reflection on the best use of one’s time. If work is too much about oneself, the motives and direction of work need to be altered somehow. Fathers, for example, have the responsibility to set, observe and maintain their priorities of prayer, family, and work. If anyone is misaligned, he shouldn’t be surprised or discouraged if problems arise; on the contrary, he should be grateful for the rare gift of recognizing their misalignment.
One of the dangers of the “work from home” that particularly applies to this problem is the formation of blurred lines between life focused on work and work focused on the home. We no longer live in the rural age in which the norm allows for the simple integration between the two. The challenge is more evident today than it was before the technological revolution. This apparent loss should not lead us to sentiments of pagan nostalgia for a bygone time; that time probably never existed anyway. On the contrary, today’s flesh and blood experiences inform us that these blurred lines reveal themselves when another email must be sent as lunch is being served. Playing catch might have to wait until after dinner.
This arrangement seems to be far from the ideal, especially because the procreation and education of children sit at the position of highest importance for a parent; seamless peer-to-peer communication is only an accidental attribute of the modern work landscape. The latter can certainly be addicting, especially for one who values high impact, consistent productivity. At some point, though, it needs to be acknowledged that sacrificing a productive edge is a worthy loss when compared to the essential vocation of raising children.
On the other end of the spectrum, if one’s work output significantly suffers because he is too distracted by the joys (and hardships) of family life, then perhaps some consideration is owed to the benefits of working outside of the home. At the very least, it demands formality to the extent that one must arrive at a certain location, at a certain time, for a certain length of time and wearing a certain thing. Some of these requirements can be fulfilled personally out of a zeal to imitate the workplace environment. Still, the duration and strength of this zeal might be questionable after a few weeks (or days) of realizing the convenience of at-home work.
Because this is not a moral issue of absolute good or absolute evil, there is no way to identify a certain action as right or wrong for all families in all situations. An appropriate metric for this question, though, is certainly a concern of the common good. In a family, each person fills a certain role for the fulfillment of himself and the other members of his family. If a father’s role as a defender of the family cannot be fulfilled because of a newfound appreciation for the convenience of working from home, then it seems that something needs to be addressed. In the same way, if he cannot fulfill his role because of too many late nights at the office and little to no time spent with his family, a reconsideration of priorities seems to be in order.
All of these ideals come from my understanding of the kind of life St. Joseph probably led as Spouse of the Mother of God and Foster-Father of the Son of God. Joseph worked near the home, in the home and for the home. The center of his work was not himself or his own standards of productivity but his family. He understood that the common good could not be achieved if his work’s orientation was not properly centered on his family.
How are we certain, though, that Joseph successfully accomplished this project of properly ordering his work and family? At least part of the answer to this question can be found in the observation that we never read the words of Joseph in the Gospels. His silence indicates, at least in part, that these decisions were made in his own heart. Because his intellect was totally focused on our Lady and our Lord, his actions naturally followed from his interior movements.
Whatever decision husbands and fathers make in this new working milieu, it should always be silently focused on the family. St. Joseph’s silence indicates that work should not be done with complaint or with words uttered to seek attention; on the contrary, work is the necessary and natural function of human persons that can aid in bringing about our own salvation and salvation of those around us. Whether work is done at home or close to home, it should always be accomplished with the Creator and His creatures in mind.
Harry Scherer is a student at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD where he studies philosophy, politics & economics (PPE) and history. He works as Co-Editor-in-Chief of Tolle Lege: Journal of Theology and Philosophy and Assistant Managing Editor of the Emmitsburg News-Journal, the local newspaper of his university town.