By Morgan Beard
If your goal is to live a spiritual life, then you may also have thought about ways to bring more meaning into your working life: a job that helps people in need, teaches those who are looking for knowledge, creates beauty or inspiring messages, champions truth and fights corruption. Maybe you feel called to make a difference in the world in a way that suits your unique talents. Then reality sets in. There are bills to pay and obligations to fulfill, and the jobs that are most rewarding for your soul are often the least rewarding for your bank account.
How do you balance a mundane but financially sustainable working life with a desire for spiritual fulfillment? Does choosing one mean sacrificing the other?
When Swedenborg talks about working for a living, it’s usually in the context of charitas, a Latin word that’s often translated charity, but carries a broad sense of caring for or loving other people. In the following excerpt from his writings, the term is translated goodwill.
Goodwill itself is acting justly and faithfully in our position and our work, because all the things we do in this way are useful to the community; and usefulness is goodness, and goodness in an impersonal sense is our neighbor. As I have shown [elsewhere], our neighbor is not only individual people but also our community and the country as a whole.
For example, if monarchs lead the way for their subjects by setting an example of doing good, if they want their people to live by the laws of justice, if they reward people who live that way, if they give all people the consideration they deserve, if they keep their people safe from harm and invasion, if they act like parents to their countries, and take care for the general prosperity of their people—these monarchs have goodwill in their hearts. The things they do are good actions. . . .
Business people who act with honesty and without fraudulence are caring for the neighbor they do business with. So are workers and craftspeople when they do their work uprightly and honestly rather than falsely or deceptively. The same goes for everyone else—for ship captains and sailors, or farm workers and servants. (True Christianity #422)
There’s a real value in doing your job and doing it well, even if the job itself isn’t very spiritually uplifting. You may not have a very high opinion of politicians (and maybe justifiably so!) but if someone in a position of power acts the way that Swedenborg describes above, it could make a tremendous difference in people’s lives. Even people who don’t seem to have much power or influence—farmers, cab drivers, janitors, waiters, admins—can have a positive impact on other people just through the way they do their jobs and how they relate to the people around them.
In the passage above, Swedenborg mentions another key idea: usefulness. Some jobs are useful in big ways: doctors, for example, save lives. But every job has the potential to make someone’s life just a little bit better or easier, or to bring some small joy where there was none before. Think about the people around you. How many people do you help by doing your job well? How many people would you hurt if you did it badly? That’s why Swedenborg says doing things that are useful to others, or to society as a whole, is the same as doing good in the world. It can be that easy.
Ultimately, Swedenborg’s message is that it’s not what we do, but how and why we do it:
Goodwill is doing good to our neighbor daily and constantly—not only to our neighbor as an individual but also to our neighbor collectively. The only way to do this is through practicing goodness and justice in our position and work and with the people with whom we have any interaction, because these are the things we do every day. When we are not doing them, they still stay in our minds all the time; we think about them and intend to do them.
People who practice goodwill in this way become better and better forms of goodwill. Justice and faithfulness shape their minds and the practice of goodwill shapes their bodies. Over time, because of their form, they get to the point where everything they want and think about relates to goodwill. (True Christianity #423)
So maybe the question is not “How do I get a better job?” but “How do I do a better job?” Can you help someone in your workplace, or use good humor or a good attitude to brighten someone’s day? Can you appreciate the usefulness in even the most ordinary tasks? When you start thinking in terms of how to make other people happy instead of how to make yourself happy, Swedenborg says, that’s the first step to finding spiritual fulfillment—no matter where you are or what you do.