OPINION: Dignity in and beyond labor

Outreach Director
St. Louis Ethical Society

As COVID-19 rages across the United States, it is not only threatening our health and taking lives, but causing us to reevaluate our relationship with our work.

Since the middle of March the country has been plunged into an unwanted and unprecedented experiment, as we’ve all had to figure out what it means to be a worker if we cannot go into work. Businesses and faith communities alike may be beginning to reopen now, but for most of us our labor will look very different for the foreseeable future, with social distancing measures in the workplace and many more people working from home, while others still cannot work at all.

COVID-19 has upended our entire understanding of labor.

This has major economic consequences of course. Already, in my own neighborhood, stores and restaurants are closing forever, pushed out of business by the pandemic. Families are struggling to get by on reduced or non-existent wages, with little support from the government. This, in turn, causes mental health crises, as we worry about how we are going to pay out rent or our mortgage, pay down the credit card debt, or even feed our families without the income our work provides.

Our identities are challenged, too, when we cannot work as normal.

For many of us our work is part of who we are. We don’t just go to work, we are a truck driver, a teacher, a nurse, a clergyperson. When our work life is disrupted we can lose ourselves, wondering who we are apart from our jobs – especially in a society which so often seems to suggest that we are valued because – and only if – we work.

As a Humanist, I appreciate the deep sense of satisfaction and personal identity many people derive from their work. As clergy, I am lucky to have followed a vocation, and my work is certainly central to how I view myself.

I know that there is dignity in work, dignity in being of service to our fellow human beings, and our essential workers are displaying that dignity every day, putting their health on the line to ensure our society can continue to function.

Yet I also believe that every human person has dignity beyond their work, an inherent worth and dignity which we are due simply because we are people. So it is crucial to remember, while our work lives are disrupted, that while our labor may be very important to us, we are more than our labor.

We are more than the value we add to a company, more than the hours we put on the timesheet, more even than the shifts spent by the bedsides of the sick. We all have inestimable value, a dignity beyond labor, simply because we are people.

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