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Don't be a Dilbert: the workplace, according to Dilbert, is hell. Might a spirituality of work help?

Let's get this straight up front: I think Scott Adams' comic strip Dilbert is very funny, and I read it every morning (right after I check out Doonesbury--I am, after all, a baby boomer).

So it's not that I don't "get it" or haven't got a sense of humor. But you have to admit that Dilbert is more than a little depressing in its view of the workplace. Relationships in Dilbertsville are abusive; loyalty between employer and employee or business and customer is nonexistent; pride in the quality of product or service is a joke. Dilbert and his colleagues have no respect--much less love--for each other. They hate going to work, constantly wish they were elsewhere, draw no sense of satisfaction from their efforts, and feel that they are underpaid, overworked, and completely unappreciated.

So what, you say? That's the way the workplace is, perhaps slightly exaggerated. As columnist Mike Royko used to say, "If work is so great, how come they have to pay us to do it?" And comedienne Lily Tomlin points out, "The problem with the rat race is that even if you win you're still a rat."

Here's the problem--if a cartoon can even be a "problem." Dilbert reinforces the popular perception that work is a burden to be borne "by the sweat of your brow," as Genesis puts it. Work is at best how we make a living or put bread on the table. It may even be a source of power and prestige for some of us.

If Dilbert is accurate in its admittedly humorous view of the workplace, however, then work is a place devoid of any sense of the sacred, the holy, the transcendent, the ultimately meaningful. The workplace, according to Dilbert, is literally hell.

Maybe this is true for you, and if so, I'm sorry to hear it. It must be tough to spend 40 to 50 to 60 hours a week doing something you hate. If I were you, I'd be complaining, too. There are all kinds of surveys that show that many despise their work or at least their current work environment.

I've got a secret to tell you, however. Some of us actually like our jobs. We find our work to be fulfilling, productive, important, creative--worth doing for a large percentage of our waking hours and a large portion of our lives here on Earth.

Especially since September 11, many people have rediscovered that our work is the primary way we can help make the world a better place, a little more like the way God would have things.

That doesn't mean that it's not still work. As Royko said, they still have to pay us to do it. (Although much good work has been, is being, and will continue to be done by people for little or no pay--parents, volunteers, citizens, retirees, and others.) Those of us who like our work are not saying that the workplace is heaven. We deal with difficult people, impossible deadlines, and silly rules. We get physically and mentally exhausted. We need holidays and vacations. Could things be better in our workplaces? Yes, they could. But does that mean we hate our jobs or wish we could be doing something else? Nope.

I have come to the conclusion that the difference between the gang at Dilbert and those of us who actually like our jobs has very little to do with the specifics of our work. True, there are some workplaces that are awful and irredeemable, and maybe those of us who like our jobs are merely lucky enough to avoid those. Perhaps Dilbert and his fellow workers just need to get a new employer. But my guess is that wherever Dilbert and his buddies went to work, they'd find things pretty awful, which is my point exactly.

In reality, most workplaces are a mixed bag. It's how we deal with the mixed bag that determines how we view and perform our work. There's a movement afoot in the workplace that helps people do just that. It's called the "spirituality of work," and it comes in many forms. There are Buddhist, New Age, Jewish, Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant, and numerous other variations. There are even secular versions that talk about spirituality without taking a position on the existence of the deity!

These spiritualities vary. Some would have us close our office door or go to a private place to practice traditional spiritual disciplines. Others are much more "in your face" and would have us wear our spirituality on our sleeve in the workplace and try to convert colleagues to our way of worshiping. Some are merely management techniques that borrow from the language of the spiritual world, while others are heavy-duty, countercultural attempts to transform the "system."

My own take on the spirituality of work is that it is neither a set of contemplative or pious practices nor an attempt to persuade people to join a particular religion nor a technique designed to make people more calm and happy at work. Rather, the spirituality of work is a series of disciplines that can be practiced in any work situation, without disturbing either the flow of the work or offending others. Such a spirituality takes seriously the idea that God is present in the hustle and bustle of the daily workplace just as much as in a church or on a mountaintop.

Authentic spirituality of work, to my mind, does two things. First, it raises the practitioners' awareness of the presence of the spiritual (the transcendent, the holy, the sacred, the divine, the ultimately meaningful) in the work itself. Second, this raised awareness changes the way practitioners of this spirituality do their work and relate to others in the workplace.

I'd like to invite the characters from Dilbert to try practicing the spirituality of work for a while. If they did, maybe their workplace would be transformed into something much closer to what Jesus had in mind when he talked about bringing about the reign of God "on Earth as it is in heaven."

Although then maybe Dilbert wouldn't be so funny ... or so sad.

By GREGORY F. AUGUSTINE PIERCE, co-publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago and author of Spirituality@Work: 10 Ways to Balance Your Life On-the-Job (Loyola Press). His free e-mail discussion group can be joined by e-mailing him at
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Author:Augustine Pierce, Gregory F.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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