23 June 2010

Working and Serving

Let each one of God’s loved ones centre his attention on this: to be the Lord’s mercy to man; to be the Lord’s  grace. Let him do some good to every person whose path he crosseth, and be of some benefit to him. 
'Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, p. 3

In the past decade, participation in the plans of the Universal House of Justice has revolutionized the way  Baha'is spend time outside of work. Whereas before, they might have spent an evening zoning out on Facebook or watching television, now they're more likely to be promoting spiritual education in their neighborhoods or working with community members to apply Baha'u'llah's teachings to social needs. Baha'is have greatly enhanced their capacity for being "the Lord's mercy to man" in their free time. And it is empowering hundreds of thousands of people around the world to promote the material and spiritual prosperity of their communities. But however transformative these developments have been, there is also the matter of how we spend our time before five p.m. The Baha'i world may be doing new and exciting things in the evenings and on weekends. But for the vast majority of us, work continues much as it always has.

I'd like to take some ideas from this emerging framework for action and apply them to the way we think about paid work. In particular, I'd like to explore what it might me to approach paid work as service to humanity.

Granted, many jobs are pointless. And some are actively harmful to society. But by and large, most paid positions contribute something of value to the broader community. Whether it be selling shoes, programming software, or managing a stock portfolio, a service is rendered that advances our shared prosperity. However, this is often neglected in the way we think about paid work and its financial compensation. We assume work is a means to a paycheck, and not that compensation is society's means of supporting us while we serve its needs. The dominant culture of getting ahead and rising to the top of one's field has consolidated a vision of human effort as something that is only exerted for one's own benefit and not for the benefit of others as well.

This is an attitude I think it's best to resist. Granted, it's a hard world and we should be careful not to be exploited. However, in this case I think a bit of non-conformist naivete is less dangerous than continuing down the path of mandatory cynicism. I think It's time to try something different.

I'd like to share three thoughts on what benefits can come from approaching paid work as a form of service to humanity. There is of course a great deal more to this question, especially regarding its spiritual dynamics. However, these are some initial considerations.

First, thinking of work entirely in terms of self-interest drains the life out of it. Picking up trash in the streets isn't something I would do for my own entertainment. The work is only meaningful inasmuch as I recognize it's for the benefit of everyone who uses those streets. If I do that, I can enjoy not only the paycheck, but also the satisfaction of a job well done.

Second, thinking solely in terms of self-interest is a privilige of the wealthy. If I and everyone else I care about has a very high income, we can just leave each other to ourselves and get by fine. But if I and those around me are poor, our needs pile up and we need each other to sort it all out. I think promoting a culture of mutual service can go a long way toward correcting imbalances of wealth and poverty.

Third, business culture shapes social structure. And social structure in turn shapes business culture. If the most powerful people in an economy shape the economy with an aim of maximizing individual profit rather than serving the needs of society then the jobs they create will reflect that attitude. Thus, many jobs that will be available will exist to boost someone's bottom line but will do little serve society's needs and could be actively harmful. An example of this can be found in the financial industry, where many people earn enormous salaries simply by buying and selling assets at greatly inflated prices, running the risk of bringing the global economy to its knees as it did in 2008. Jobs that don't contribute to any need then reinforce the view that work is just for bringing home a paycheck. This brings the cycle back to where it started. However, if people use their economic influence to create jobs that serve public needs while at the same time promoting a culture that approaches those jobs in that light, then we enter a virtuous cycle. The availability of good jobs provides fertile ground for further improvements in business culture. This, I think, is a central task for a Baha'i approach to business.


  1. Spelling alert, "what it might me to approach" should be "what it might mean to approach".


  2. Along these lines is the concept of paid work for Baha'i institutions. As the Faith grows, it is a natural outcome that there will be more and more people making a living by serving as Assembly secretaries, Baha'i center managers, and institute coordinators. Those are the ones that come to mind right now at least.

    Does anyone have experience with this yet?