The reason why men often find themselves happy and satisfied in the army is that for the first time in their lives, they find themselves doing something not for the sake of pay, which is miserable, but for the sake of getting the thing done.
-Dorothy Sayers (quoting a surgeon friend), in Creed or Chaos
Some people reminisce constantly about their days in high school – as if that time was the pinnacle of their existence before the stranglehold of adulthood seized them and has never let go. In a similar vein are those who, whatever the context, can’t go five whole minutes without bringing up some anecdote about their years in the military. I used to think this was just limited to career service men or those who fought in notable wars, but on close examination, this attitude often shows up in people who spent, say, a relatively uneventful six years in the navy. What makes this time in the army (or whatever) such a dominant experience of their lives that is serves as the (nearly always implicitly superior) measuring rod to everything that comes after it? I think Sayer’s get’s to the answer here. Man is wired to work hard, and to work toward a tangible, meaningful, and beautiful goal. Working for a paycheck taints this natural psychology like a rock in the shoe plagues a marathon runner. Recalling that one race you ran where you DIDN’T have a rock in your shoe – well, it would be hard to forget.
Can we escape paychecks today? Various economic philosophers, from Marxists to distributivists think so. Zizek says we are incapable of imagining such a world. I think I’m going to say no – they can’t be done away with. However, their effect on man’s work CAN be significantly mitigated, IF we’re careful and creative. Recovering or developing a more comprehensive theology of vocation would be a good step in the right direction on this. The “protestant work ethic”, despite it merits, needs to be scrapped in favor of something more holistic. We are not even close to articulating this well yet.