Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Lumiere, John Paul II, and the Meaning of Work

I love the animated Disney film, Beauty and the Beast. It’s a classic, fun, sweet story with a lively (book-loving!) heroine and a large cast of entertaining characters. When I was young, one of my favorite scenes occurred when the castle servants sing, dance, and present luscious dishes for Belle’s enjoyment. By the end of the scene, I would find myself inwardly singing right along with them: “Be our guest! Be our guest!” It was a happy and lighthearted part of the movie, and I enjoyed it immensely on a superficial level. It wasn’t until I began frequently singing this song with my son during our karaoke dance parties that the profundity of the lyrics really jumped out at me:

Life is so unnerving
For a servant who's not serving
He's not whole without a soul to wait upon
Ah, those good old days when we were useful...
Suddenly those good old days are gone

With these few words, Lumiere paints a sad picture for us: a bunch of servants scattered around the castle with no work to do. Is this really so sad? After all, some people, this image may sound like a dream! Lounging on a couch while eating cookie dough and watching Netflix for hours on end can sound like a really nice idea. And this is nice, for a time. When the semester ends and summer break opens up hours of free time, many students rejoice—but then, a few months later, find themselves wanting the routine and friendships that come with the school year. I also will suggest that, while many students may not consciously realize or admit to this fact, they benefit from having something productive to do which requires discipline and hard work.

When the servants in Beauty and the Beast had no work to do, they lacked a sense of purpose and direction. 

Ten years we've been rusting
Needing so much more than dusting
Needing exercise, a chance to use our skills!

Quite unexpectedly, Belle came--and their world brightened because once again, they could serve someone else in and through their work. In a similar way, all human beings have a close tie to work. In his encyclical, Laborem Exercens, Pope St. John Paul II discusses the relationship between the human person and work. He notes that in the story of Creation, when mankind hears the words from God to

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,” even though these words do not refer directly and explicitly to work, beyond any doubt they indirectly indicate it as an activity for man to carry out in the world. (#4)

As we work, we respond to this command that God gave us in the beginning. 

We utilize our reason and intelligence to respectfully work with creation and others. Through our work, we reflect the creative power of God, our Father. Work can be challenging and require lots of mental or physical exertion, but this does not mean that we should avoid it. Rather, the exhausting effort we put into our work, the perseverance that we cling to as we work despite hardships, are all opportunities for our growth. Despite all of these difficult aspects, work is a good and noble pursuit for mankind. As Pope St. John Paul II notes,

It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes "more a human being." (9)

Work is a good and beautiful thing, and when we work hard, I think that our times of relaxation are more fruitful and restful than if we had only worked halfheartedly, or if we didn’t work at all. It's important to value the importance of work, but looking at the words of both Lumiere and John Paul II, I think that our country is lacking in a true appreciation for what work should be. I have noticed that some people in our society do not practice leisure time, because they are always at work. There are other people who do not have fruitful relaxation because they rarely work! People belonging to the first category may not understand that they must imitate God in work and rest, and that work is an action which unites them to Christ, not just something they do to make money. Individuals in the latter category may not understand that while relaxation is good, work is also good, and will help them achieve “fulfillment as a human being.”

Personally, I can say that I’ve swung back and forth between these extremes, and I am still very much growing in my understanding or work and how to truly persevere and work hard amid difficulties. The conversation about human work is important, and needs to be ongoing in our families, churches, and communities. It seems to me that most often, this conversation happens in regards to political issues, but the subject of human work is not simply a political topic. This subject is about our humanity, our dignity, and our relationship with God—so let’s start talking about it more often!


  1. Great post! My old chiropractor used to say "Work hard, play hard, couch potato hard."

  2. You make some great points. This issue is also addressed in Downton Abby with the character of Mosley. All work is good, even if it is so called 'meaningless' because it gives dignity to the worker.

    1. Yes! And the whole challenge that Matthew Crawley goes through, with learning to let others do their jobs, is a great touch. Thanks for bringing up that excellent point!!