On my first day back to the office after four-and-a-half months of working from home due to the pandemic, I wore my most comfortable work-appropriate shoes. They weren’t the most stylish, but after weeks at home in which I rarely put on shoes, I knew I should prioritize comfort. So I was pretty annoyed to start developing a blister only a few hours into my day. My most comfortable shoes had betrayed me.
I’d never even noticed a callous before in the raw spot that now reddened with blister. I had been wearing certain kinds of shoes for so long, that I didn’t even realize how my feet had changed to accommodate them. Metaphors come to me naturally, so it was with a bitter chuckle that I limped from the coffee shop back to my office that day, wondering where else I had developed unseen callouses from the daily acts of shoving myself into lifestyle choices that didn’t really fit me.
What damage have I done in breaking myself from my natural sleep cycle so that I can sit in traffic at seven a.m.? What parts of my personality have I toned down in order to fit the culture of my workplace? What levels of stress have I learned to accept as normal? As the weeks went by, those blisters began to burn as well.
I am aware that I speak from a place of privilege. I was fortunate to be able to work from home for the duration of our stay-at-home period and to absorb a brief period of voluntary furlough. Many people lost their jobs or had no choice but to trudge on through difficult, essential work in order to make ends meet.
Still, for all the ways that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought economic havoc and hardship on our lives, it has also forced us to approach work differently. It has taught us exactly which meetings can, in fact, be emails; it’s also taught us the true value of certain face-to-face interactions. How much more should we respect and value those whose physical presence in the workplace is truly “essential?” And how should we now reassess those aspects of our jobs that force people to make untenable choices between home and work, between presence and paychecks?
Heather Zeiger wrote a wonderful piece for Breaking Ground exploring the possibilities for more humane work practices after the pandemic. I encourage you to read her insightful article and imagine a new way forward for post-pandemic work practices. Zeiger asserts that the pandemic has helped us to “break out of dehumanizing mindsets and support the worker as someone with a fully orbed life,” and she calls for a post-pandemic society that “prioritizes human flourishing rather than greed and consumerism.”
“Human flourishing” has always been the goal of work. God put Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and gave the gift of work, commissioning them to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28) Thus, humans are to form and fill the earth and steward its resources.
We may be easily deceived by the words “rule” and “subdue,” which can turn quickly to domination and exploitation. But the vision in Genesis is really one of loving care. Here’s how the Theology of Work Project puts it:
“We are to act as if we ourselves had the same relationship of love with his creatures that God does. Subduing the earth includes harnessing its various resources as well as protecting them. Dominion over all living creatures is not a license to abuse them, but a contract from God to care for them. We are to serve the best interests of all whose lives touch ours; our employers, our customers, our colleagues or fellow workers, or those who work for us or who we meet even casually.”
Both the work we do and the environment in which we do it should express or facilitate care, not domination. Those of us who are in a position to make changes to our workplace environments should do so with an eye toward loving stewardship and human flourishing.
This pandemic has provided a rare opportunity for us to experience life and work differently. While some of the “callouses” we build up in our work lives are the natural result of tilling hard ground in a fallen world, other callouses expose our consumerism, our fear, or simply our conformity to a system that does not have human flourishing in mind. Instead of going back to that kind of “normal,” I hope that we will take this opportunity to imagine a better way forward — perhaps a way that includes more comfortable shoes.