The Fallacy of Honorable Work

Since it’s the holidays, I have and will be spending time in airports. I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that an awful lot of the people working in airport restaurants and kiosks are immigrants who, for the most part, do their jobs diligently. I started to ask myself why these jobs should be staffed primarily by immigrants, and why they are doing such good work in such menial jobs?

This got me thinking and asking questions. The first standard answer is that the immigrants do the work, because those of us born in N.America think that working at McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s is beneath our dignity. The immigrants are just happy to have a job at all, and will take pride in whatever job they happen to find themselves in. This pride is precisely what we would not have were we “reduced” to working a job. We’d be surly, embarrassed, and looking for any opportunity to find “better” work.

This got me to thinking about honor. We have, by and large, lost the concept of honor in our culture. There is no set of behaviors and conventions to which one may adhere and therefore be called honorable. In a situation where we can’t know if we are honorable people or not, we have to externalize the concept of honor into things like our work. Lacking an internalized sense of honor that we could take with us into virtually any job that we may find ourselves doing (such as my immigrant examples), we find ourselves locating honor in external sources, particularly in the work that we do. (There’s also the distinct possibility that we attempt to locate honor in our possessions, something connected to my previous post.)

As a Christian, it is furthermore ridiculous to consider work “beneath me.” We follow a God who humbled himself to become a human being; who spent his life as the servant of all and endured the most humiliating death possible in the Roman Empire.

This means that nothing is beneath me, since I should be racing towards the bottom, embracing downward mobility and locating honor in seeking to honor others above myself. The Spirit is always speaking, let us have eyes to see, ears to ear and hearts set to obedience.

7 responses to “The Fallacy of Honorable Work”

  1. While for the most part you are right about immigrant labour in airpports, another reason is very simple: most Canadians only speak English (and maybe French), where people from most other countries speak several languages fluently. Also, say someone of Arabic descent (and language) is applying for a job and someone who only speaks English and French is applying. There are high chances that that person who speaks Arabic also speaks French as well as Arabic. That’s an advantage few “ethnic” Canadians have. However, that immigrant may only have basic English, which is why they can’t get a “better” job.

    Besides that, I agree that many Canadians have lost “honour” or any sense of it. I have noticed my own lack here in Korea and have been striving to learn how to obtain, and hereafter live with, honour.

  2. Good thoughts. I agree with becks, though one need not look too much further than the aiports to see immigrants working “menial” jobs, jobs that us “ethnic” (well put) Canadians, both Christian and non, would find beneath us.

    I think part of what makes immigrants able to do their work so honorably is that they know how to be thankful. We’ve been reared in a society that doesn’t easily reward thankfulness. The spirit we’re after is discontentment, perhaps synonymous with ambition, because it’s a spirit fine-tuned to achieve the capitalist mandates: growth, the bottom line, bigger, better, maximize, etc.

  3. becks: You’re right about those pragmatic reasons, at least in airports. I hadn’t thought of that angle, but you as a language teacher have a perspective that I don’t think about much here in English-only land. However, as Tony pointed out, that immigrants work what we consider “menial” jobs is not restricted to airports by any means.

    tony: Gratitude is certainly something we’re almost entirely incapable of, and something we desperately need to learn. And yet, my Western upbringing makes me readily equate gratitude with fatalism…

  4. i, like you matt, have spent much time in airports lately and have noticed similar things but my conclusion is a bit different.

    im not sure that the immigrants have each individually (nor individually influenced by their culture) to take honour in their work.
    i also don’t think that immigrants are more thankful inherently.

    rather i think they succeed in living an honorable and thankful existence at work because they are continously surrounded by a community which supports their reasons for being there (in canada, working lots) and which provides the joy of doing something together. i, like any other human, can last a lot longer on the chain gang with a couple friends chipping away next to me.

    muslims do community better than us (christians in the west) and because of this, they can effectively resist the shame that is a temptation for anyone that works at burger king.

    so i don’t think the answer is to ‘get honour’ or ‘get thankful’ but rather seek to surround ourselves with the family we’ve been given, accepting the support which exists in embryonic form in every group of Christians gathered.

    peace matt, love this blog!

  5. joel mason: good pushback and critique my brother. :) I completely agree that their sense of honor derives from a strong community ethos which helps them to overcome the pervasive individualism that cripples people in our culture.

    So, I completely agree that to become an honorable person requires finding ourselves within community. This is where we find the traditions, conventions and stories that tell us who we are and who we should aspire to be. Out of this honor and thankfulness will flow, I think.

  6. Matt,

    I’ve been thinking about honour a bit too, curious as to where it is in daily life. how people can honour and dishonour each other in their interactions. At MISA (Halifax’s Metro- Immigrant Settlement Association) we were talking about explaining different words as concepts… anyways, honour came up. i can’t figure a definition that really surmizes it, but it seems to be something to do with respect and dignity, but also with the person you have aspoused yourself to be, and whether that you being true or not. doing right by something or someone based on the terms of what dignifies, not what will merely serve your own ends. the binary of it seems to do with deception and deceitfulness, selfishness and prejudice.

  7. Steph: Yeah, it’s definitely a difficult-to-define concept, but you seem to be hitting all the right notes there.

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