On buying, selling and working for a living

Published 9:20 am Friday, April 5, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

How much work is too much work? What parts of our lives cannot be bought and sold? When do buying, selling and working take second place to other priorities in our society?

Over Holy Week — Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday — I found my thoughts returning to these questions, ones I’ve often pondered over the years. While I listened to the readings from the Bible and participated in worship services that, for me, commemorate God’s attempt to reestablish the divine-human relationship, I could not help but notice how little the story told in worship is reflected in the wider community.

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It’s not an issue of morality that draws my attention. It’s more about balance. It’s about the choices we make when we establish the balance among family values, spirituality and careers. Whatever else the story of Jesus of Nazareth means to believers, it should also serve as an example of how little the buying, selling and working in our lives matters to God.

So as I tried to show respect for the choices that were made by that man so many centuries ago, this is where I ended up: Human beings in America are driven by the need to work, the need to be productive when it comes to generating income for ourselves and profits for our employers (who sometimes are ourselves when we are small business owners).

This sorting of priorities even becomes a kind of religious belief for many, though mainly the adherents of what I call the prosperity gospel message. They believe that working hard — all the time — and enjoying the benefits that high income careers provide is a sign that Jesus is part of our lives; God brings us personal success.

Beyond theology, it’s also a parenting issue. As our children grow up and enter the adulthood, we often focus our attention on their hopes, dreams and plans for entering the adult workforce. Schools invest countless hours in career preparation, asking students to declare what they want to be when they grow up again and again.

All too often the kids who talk about the high-powered, high-paying future careers are the ones we hold up as role models. They are the practical children we admire, as parents and educators, with the hopeful writers, artists and musicians producing condescending, indulgent smiles, or the exchange of knowing, almost cynical glances with other adults who know what the real world demands.

The focus on buying, selling and working is an issue for the spending of public dollars. Why do we spend so many public dollars on infrastructure like suburban interstates? It’s about moving workers to jobs and then back home again. Why do so many of us complain so loudly when the effort to clear streets of snow and ice fall short of our expectations? Where is it that we need to be so desperately that clearing snow becomes the single greatest priority for taxpayers?

America, of course, is not alone in this obsession with buying, selling and working. Throughout the world, throughout human history, people have consistently chosen making money and work the most important part of their lives.

My own Prussian heritage celebrates all three, with an added emphasis on efficiency in all things. The struggle with priorities, with establishing the kind of balance in things spiritual and things commercial goes on within my own soul. It’s nice having money to spend, after all, on trips to see beautiful art and explore history. It’s nice not having to worry about the next meal or where to sleep at night.

When things are out of balance, the land suffers — the entire ecosystem — with protection of wild creatures and plants dependent on whether we can afford to let them live unmolested; protecting the homes of rabbits or snakes or owls from plow or saw or parking lots depends on a cost-benefit analysis.

There is a cost, of course. When buying, selling and working are out of balance with faith and family, our bodies suffer, with heart attacks, strokes, ulcers — emotional breakdowns. We persuade ourselves that the happiness that comes with financial and professional success is worth more than the costs to ourselves, our loved ones and our world.

Yes, money is nice to have, but the reality is that it’s something we choose to make a priority. It’s not natural. And it’s most definitely not spiritual.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.