The image of this railroad worker reminds me to appreciate being able to choose work that’s in alignment with what gives me joy and a sense of fulfillment. My parents didn’t have that luxury. Many people love manual labor and don’t want to be sitting at a desk or computer. They deserve our respect and appreciation. I think of the difficulties people had in finding any kind of work during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era, including the immigrants who came to this country without two nickels to rub together. And I think of the billions of souls world-wide who, under the thumb of kings and dictators had no choice but to spend their days toiling in the fields and fighting on battlefields. Subsistence and staying alive throughout most of human history was “job one.” If the ability to choose work that’s growthful and enjoyable isn’t one of the attributes of civilization, it ought to be. It’s a major privilege.
Every year, when I asked my students what was more important to them in considering a career, money or the opportunity to be creative, the vast majority chose the latter. That was not surprising because they were majoring in a creative field—filmmaking, visual communication and television production. Had I put that question to accounting or business majors, the answer would likely have been different. One of the benefits of education beyond high school is that students have both the freedom and opportunity to choose a field of interest that can lead to either work or a job. For me, a “job” is a contract involving the exchange of time and energy for money. The reward is solely extrinsic. That’s not to demean it, not at all. I’m reminded of the many people holding jobs as a stepping-stone toward reaching a goal, and those who love their jobs and, as a consequence, perform them well. “Work” on the other hand involves an occupation that provides intrinsic rewards as well as financial compensation. Such benefits can include personal growth, adventure, education, the joy of meeting a challenge, service to others, the healing and helping professions, advancing science or research, opportunities to be creative, teach or make a difference.
I further distinguish between work and “vocation,” the motivation of which has less to do with personal reward and more to do with dedication to a calling, the need to serve others. It’s the kind of work one is compelled to do, irregardless of compensation. It’s in this vein that Kahlil Gibran wrote that “Work is love made manifest.” I put great artists in this category. And then there’s the notion of work on behalf of the human project. Thomas Berry wrote that “The great work before us is reverence and restoration”—reverence for all living things and restoration of the planet, the work of responsible stewardship. In this regard Matthew Fox asks, “Are we making products that are useful and necessary or are we exploiting the earth and degrading our planet for future generations? How does our work relieve the suffering of other beings on the planet?”
This image, combined with these perspectives prompt several considerations for further contemplation. Why am I doing what I do? What are the intrinsic rewards? Is my work commensurate with my purpose? How is my work a contribution? To what or whom? Is it contributing to the human project in some way?
Once we recognize that we are interdependent, it only makes sense to work together. It does not make sense to try to beat out the other guy, because there is no such thing, in the ultimate calculus, as “I win, you lose.” I can only win when we all win.
About This Image
Title: Railroad Worker
File #: 058-A3
Location: Union Central railroad yard, Cincinnati, Ohio
With written permission and an ID to photograph in the railroad yard, I spent the entire day shooting everything that attracted my attention. When this man saw me with a camera he shut off the welding equipment and raised his goggles to ask what I was doing. I showed him my ID and asked if I could take his picture. He consented and went back to work, so I took the shot.
I had to get some distance from the welding sparks, so the original negative includes a lot of distracting sky above and on the left side of the box car. To eliminate it and to strengthen the vector between the man’s goggles and the hot spot, I cropped rather severely. The camera was hand-held, so the shutter speed had to be fast enough to maintain sharpness yet slow enough to blur the sparks.