The Stock Market. Wikimedia Commons

A Bottle and Work

For work to exist, it has to have a meaning. The same is true for businesses, whether big or small. We are together to live and testify to the meaning of everything. The beginning of a struggle in the world. Reflections about adults at work.
Giancarlo Cesana

At a recent Executive Meeting of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Father Giussani made this observation: this bottle does not exist just because I see it and touch it. The fact that I see it and touch it is not sufficient to confirm to me that it exists. For it to exist, this bottle has to have a meaning. That is, it has to have a relationship with me, with everything that exists; that is to say, it is necessary for this bottle to be inside the overall structure of the universe. If something has no meaning, then it is no longer necessary—whether it is there or not is basically the same thing. And what is more, I could begin to doubt that my perception itself of a thing that is not necessary might be an illusion. And he added that intellectuals have taken away the meaning of bottles, glasses, tables, everything. The meaning of things is commonly called God. If this is taken away, then we are no longer sure of anything, we are no longer sure about the existence of things and their value for man’s life. We are no longer sure about why we have to struggle for them. We are no longer sure about ourselves. For our work to exist, for the work of our hands to exist, it is not only necessary to produce, make money, demonstrate our efficiency, but it is necessary for this work to have a meaning. In other words, it is necessary for it to be directed toward, precisely, what is called God, destiny. If it does not have this direction, work loses its consistency, at least for the less fortunate. Why and how has the problem of meaning that the intellectuals have taken away from us been replaced? The meaning of life, the reason I exist, if it is not destiny, if it is not the ideal (“Ideal–thinks he–thou alone are true,” wrote Carducci), for which it is worth spending my life, if it is not this, what is it? It is my power. This is the question that Father Giussani treats in The Religious Conscience in Modern Man, where he says that the myth of modern man is the star, that is, the powerful man. It is the man capable of self-affirmation, the “American” man. Who is the man who stands out? The one who does things. The one who demonstrates not only that he can do, but does do. The rich man, the strong man, the intelligent man, the man who has achieved success. The man who can afford the superficiality of not taking into consideration what he is living for. He has so many distractions, so many possibilities, so much money that he can afford not to think about what he is in the world to do. And he can also afford to say, “I am right to live this way. It’s a waste of time to ask yourself certain questions.”

The weight of work
If you are a worker earning a low salary pulling a lever all day long to produce a plastic bag, you will get fed up fast. But if, instead, you are the owner of the machine making the plastic bag, you keep it running. Where does the difference lie? It lies in the weight, in the meaning that work has in your life. What is the use of the Companionship of Works? [Companionship of Works is an association of for-profit and non-profit corporations whose purpose is to promote the concept of work in light of the social doctrine of the Church.] Is it for making money, is it for creating businesses? Yes, certainly, but not only. What characterizes our consistency, the reason we come and stay together, is certainly help in creating enterprises, help in our work, certainly it is the consciousness of the importance of work for man, but it is not primarily this. I went into the company that my wife started, which is an attempt to help less fortunate kids, among other things by finding them jobs, and there was a big sign near the entrance that said, “Work promotes man.” Over the front gate at Auschwitz, too, was written, “Work makes men free”! It is not work that promotes man, but its meaning. If there is no meaning to work, if there is no significance, no destiny toward which the action is pointed, then even work does not exist. The reality of the Companionship of Works exists above all to affirm this meaning: to be able to live by one’s work, which one has to do in any case because everyone has to work if they want to survive (some by setting up businesses, some by being employees, etc.). Why have we come together? Because we feel that our action has a direction. It is directed toward a purpose. So our role is the affirmation of meaning of our action, of its direction toward the destiny for which we act. It is this above all. This is where we must help each other above all. Why? Because this is what distinguishes the work of an adult. Otherwise, the only reason for living is success and the good opinion of others. This is why people chase so much after recognition from others. We chase after it ourselves too! This is because if someone says you are good at something, it means that you are there. We work hard at being loved, when the real question is what we do because we are loved, because we know what we are in the world to do. And this is what makes the difference.

In my opinion, the fundamental purpose of our being together is to help each other to know this, which does not mean neglecting the concrete, organizational, constructive aspects, down to the smallest detail, but it means that the smallest detail must be part of the purpose for which the detail exists. The education we have received is this: when you are eating and drinking and even when you are sleeping you affirm the reason for your existence. Thus, one affirms even more in the details of his work, of what he is building, in the expression of what he does for himself, for his family, for his children, for good, for the world. Once, someone from the Companionship of Works came to tell me about all the works he was doing in a certain region. At a certain point I stopped him and said, “Now I will explain to you the research I am doing in cardiovascular epidemiology. You are working, aren’t you? You work just like others do, maybe you’re very good at your work, you may do extra, you may even do things that are unexpected, but what I want from you is the reason you are doing these things, and how this reason can be seen in what you do.” Jesus, too, did works. He performed miracles, but He told people never to talk about them with anyone. And what He was affirming was Himself as the meaning of His own life and others’ lives. This is why they put Him on the cross–not because He performed miracles. They put Him on the cross because He affirmed Himself as the meaning. The problem of life is its meaning, because it is meaning that challenges power.Power wages war on the meaning of things, on a thing’s existence or non-existence, on the fact that it is red rather than white, that it is black rather than green. One of our friends sits on the board of a big bank. Why does no one make a fuss about the other members, but they do about him? Because our friend represents a meaning, a vision of life. And people understand this very well, and in fact the problem is to reduce this vision of life, that is, to make it seem profiteering, and a low kind of profiteering like that of the others. And if one no longer bears a different meaning for his life, he is exactly like the others–rather, he is even less, because he gets less done. He is a poorer person. This is the level of the challenge: one cannot serve God and Mammon. Putting God at the center of one’s life means challenging the society that no longer has God, that is, challenging a society where the only thing that has value is free will.

The one who wins is the one in charge
Father Giussani wrote his Christmas article about peace. Why? Because he has the impression of a violent society. And why is this society violent? Because the only thing that has value is arbitrariness. The only thing that matters is who wins. Indeed, if there is no meaning, who is in charge? The one who wins. If there is a meaning, instead, even the one who wins has to be subject to this meaning. For this reason, we cannot delude ourselves in thinking that people will approve of us, that they will wish us well. We are like all the others–remember the Letter to Diognetus?–but we do not belong to them. And this fact will always make people feel very uneasy about us. Thanks be to God. And I hope that we too will feel uneasy for this same reason, because the “war” is over this, it is not over anything else. And with our little works, our businesses, the things we do, we are fighting this great, enormous, fantastic war for the ideal, the only reason for which life is worth living. What we are living makes our life correspond more to the destiny we are seeking. And this is what we must show and prove: freedom, openness, prizing; how free your life is in relationship with money, how open you are to the need you see, the way you prize anyone you encounter. How will we be able to change society if we do not have this attention to the person, this perceptiveness about him? And why do so many of us build works, if not for this? Why do we grow richer, more capable? Because we are happy to be alive? We are happy to be alive because we know what the meaning of life is. Otherwise, when things go badly, why are we in the world? When things don’t go as we expect, where is the hope we bear within us?

The Movement, in my opinion, is not a series of persons made from the same mold, who get up every morning, recite Lauds, stop at noon to recite the Angelus, say Vespers in the evening, then do half an hour of School of Community, then meet with the Fraternity three times a week, and smile a lot and have lots of children. The Movement is the man who is seeking the reason for living. This is why we start from an explicit hypothesis, which is the hypothesis of Christ. The Movement is I. I. That is, this search for the reason for living is I. I.

If I had to give an answer to the question as to what our role is and what judgment we can give about our presence, I would say that our role is to create a context that helps (as much as possible) the people who are part of it to ask themselves the question, in what they are doing, about the reason why they are living and working.