It can be one of the most fulfilling professions, a gift available only to a few. It’s also a world of heartbreak and disappointment.
I can run. From my early teenage years, moving into young adulthood, I dreamt of running for New Zealand at the Olympic Games. I was coached by Barry Magee, one of Arthur Lydiard’s distance runners and bronze medallist in the marathon at the 1960 Olympic Games. Barry saw potential in this young runner from Palmerston North and trained me up to win an assortment of national titles through high school. I had some natural talent, but, more importantly, I had a strong work ethic, always seeking to train smart and hard.
My dream to compete at the Olympics motivated my decision to study in the United States and compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). It was at university that this dream started to unravel. I was one of a few hundred fast American distance runners in my year level. I was good enough to qualify for the indoor mile at the NCAA Division 1 nationals (the top 16 in the country were invited), but I bombed the heat and didn’t progress to the finals. After university, I was able to win a couple of NZ national titles on the road (half-marathon, road 10km) and track (3000m, 5000m), but my times were never good enough to qualify for top-tier international competition. I loved the sport and the people in it, but, as time went on, injury and low motivation curtailed any progress in training and racing. It was clear that my dreams were never going to be realised.
Mine is one of the better stories in the sport. I’ve known of athletes achieving their goal of making the Olympics, only to fall in the race and out of the competition, facing the grief and despair of “what if…?” Some have all the talent in the world and all the signals of early success but succumb to debilitating injuries or overtraining. Others are sidelined by coaches, selectors, and officials, who don’t always have the athlete’s best interests in mind. For every story of an athlete working to achieve their sporting dreams, there are countless others who are “almost, but not quite.”
This story speaks to a specific experience of one athlete and her work in the world of sport. But these experiences of striving, futility, pointlessness, and frustration in work are, I suspect, common to many. Our bodies are scraped, bruised, and worn out by work. In our world of making and procuring, of climbing the social and corporate ladder, of achievement, success, and failure, work holds centre stage. It is a gathering point for some of our deepest pains and longings, and the makeshift altar of many of our false gods. Some of you might have an experience similar to mine, of striving towards a goal, only to fall short due to physical, emotional, social, or mental limitations. Others might have found that work has come to dominate your sense of who you are or might have experienced deep injustice in your work.
Scripture speaks directly to our experiences. In last month’s edition of Common Ground, Andrew Shamy walked us through Genesis 1 and 2, pointing out the significance and meaning of our work in the triune God’s creation of the universe and humanity. In seeking to understand the pain of work, we return to Genesis to consider: what’s gone wrong with our work? Why is work so often a matter of toil, or worse? One of the clearest examples of sin’s effect on our work is found in Genesis 11 with the story of Babel. It offers us a honed lens through which to consider how far the fall has distorted our work. In particular, we see the ways work gives rise to a false identity within us, the ways it can be idolatrous, and the ways work can be oppressive and unjust. If we’re to understand the good of our work rightly and align our lives with reality, we need to turn to Scripture to help us name what we’ve made of the good gift of work and where this leaves us now.