Lessons from stone cutters

by Catherine Fenwick ã 2000

Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Everything gives pleasure to the extent that it is loved. It is natural for people to love their own work and the reason is that we love to be and to live, and these are made manifest in our action. we all naturally love that in which we see our own good." Aquinas, a 13th Century theologian, said that to live well is to work well. He believed that life and livelihood flowed from spirit. In Sheer Joy, Mattew Fox quotes Aquinas, " for those who like musical performances and take pleasure in them, and for those who enjoy the art of building and for all others because by the fact that they take pleasure in such work, they make a great contribution to their kind of work. So it is clear that pleasure increases activity." Living and working well comes from living with meaning, purpose and joy. Our life's work can provide much of our motivation and joy.

What is work? What is good work? What is my relationship with my work? If work is the expression of my spirit, what does my work say about my spirit? Healthy people are able to integrate body, mind and spirit, and express this in their life's work. A few years ago while working in Milan, Italy I toured the city. One particular site sticks in my memory, the great cathedral of Milan, called the Duomo. On the tour my guide mentioned that it took 500 years to build this magnificent Duomo. She told me a story about an incident that occurred at the beginning of this building in 1190. A journalist from Rome came to Milan to cover the event. In the yard, he talked to three stone cutters and asked them what they were doing. The first stone cutter, Aldo said, "I am crushing rocks." The second stone cutter, Benito said, "I am working hard to make a good life for myself and my family." The third stone cutter, Georgio said, "I am building a cathedral."

People have different relationships with their work. These stone cutters were all doing the same job, but what they were doing meant something different to each of them. Like Aldo, for some people work is just a job, "Somebody's gotta' do it, I don't think about it that much." They get the work done because they have to eat and need shelter. Benito is also an honorable worker, he works hard to make a good life for his family, but he doesn't take a great deal of pleasure in the activity. He may even be what we call today a workaholic. Driven by his job, or his life, he doesn't stop to ask himself deeper questions about his vocation or purpose in life. Georgio sees himself as an integral part of the building of this cathedral, he is motivated by vision, meaning and hope. I imagine he experienced a lot of pleasure doing his work, even though he would not live to see the completion of his project. Work becomes more enjoyable when we focus attention on it and put our heart into it. It's less fun if we do it because somebody says we have to.

I have a hard time sustaining motivation through difficult or boring tasks if I do not feel that my life is important to the development of humanity, and more than that, the development of creation. If I don't know who I am or why I am alive I will look for external motivators like material things or other people. This doesn't work so well because these things are fleeting. When my motivation comes from inside myself, I am always responsible and I am always there.

If we are outer driven we will likely slog it out day after day to keep the old bank account growing. Occasionally we might stop to wonder what it's all about, but we don't know so we stop thinking about it. Maybe it is about money and we think that after we are gone people will say, "What a great person she was, look at all the money she left behind." I would rather have them say, "What a kind and happy person she was." Studies have shown little correlation between material wealth and people's perceived levels of happiness. In fact people with lots of money report more unhappiness than do those with little money. After our basic needs are met, money is quite useless in terms of providing joy.

I agree with Georgio, my place on earth is part of a bigger vision. Georgio demonstrates the sacredness of work. Work is sacred when it feeds my mind, body and spirit. Good work provides something to the community, without destroying the environment. I have a vision of an earth where people live in peace, where all creation is treated with respect, where everyone has satisfying work, access to education and where all children can grow up in happiness. I don't think I will see this in my lifetime, but that doesn't stop me from doing my part. I will keep on writing, speaking and spreading this message because I am motivated by a vision. Who knows, someday I may even get paid big money for this! In the meantime I continue to do my work, like Georgio I lay down my rocks, others lay down their rocks, hoping that someday we will all be more healthy and happy.

Our attitudes are learned at a young age and affect our lives outside of work. There's a story about two little boys who wake up early one Christmas morning and sneak downstairs to check out the presents. They get a surprise when they come around the corner and see that someone has dumped a load of manure over the tree and all the presents. The older boy is very upset and shouts, "This is awful, who would do such a thing, it's terrible, it stinks" and on and on he whines doing nothing about it. The younger brother goes to the shed in the back yard and gets a shovel. He comes into the house and starts digging in the mess saying, "All this manure in here, there's gotta' be a pony in here somewhere." There may not be a pony, but the mess will get cleaned up and he may learn something about how to handle inevitable disappointments in life. Both boys made a choice about how they want to handle the situation. Life really is about attitudes and making choices. Occasionally, there will be a pony. Life, like work, goes better when we pay attention to what we are doing and look for the roses that bloom on manure piles.

As human beings we have the power to create or to destroy. We need to make careful and clear choices about our lives. We need to think about how and what we choose to create. We need to be mindful of the ways in which we respond to things that are outside of our control. Viktor Frankel, a holocaust survivor, writes in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, "Everything can be taken from us except our right to choose how we will respond in any given situation."

What is my relationship to my life and my work? Two people looking at the same scene, one sees a manure pile the other sees possibilities. Three people doing the same work have three very different responses to that activity. How I approach my life's work determines whether the days of my life will add up to a formless blur, or to something that resembles a work of art. Am I an Aldo, a Benito or a Georgio?


Cathy Fenwick is an author, educator and workplace consultant. She develops and delivers workshops and keynotes on how to get more healthy humour into your life and your work. Her books and manuals include Healing With Humour, Telling My Sister's Story, Workscapes: Keeping spirit alive at work , Building Bridges: The heart of effective communication and Hope for people facing cancer.

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