The Unique Privilege of Meaningful Work

by Miki Kashtan

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

— Mary Oliver

Appalachian portrait by Stacy Lee Adams

After I wrote my previous post about privilege, I was more attuned to the presence of privilege in my life and around me. It is in the nature of privilege to remain invisible to those who have it, and I wanted to make use of my heightened awareness to expose and explore other forms of privilege. This brought me back to a topic I alluded to in a very early post about despair and never fully explored: the privilege of having work that emerges from passion, from a calling, from a sense of meaning. This is a form of privilege that cuts through social class, though also tends to align with class privilege.

Dreaming and Social Class

I remember years ago being paired up in a support group with a person who was raised in dire poverty in Appalachia. Our task was precisely to connect with dreams that we’ve had for our life, dreams we still wanted to accomplish. When it was my turn, I rattled off my dreams one after the other, and focused my attention on the wistfulness I felt about not seeing a way to fulfill them. When it was the other person’s turn, I encountered for the first time the possibility that anyone would have any challenge to even dream. Until that day, I was entirely unaware of the social privilege of being able to dream. I now know that far fewer people without access to external resources find their way to dreaming, let alone going for the dream.

I have since learned, when I was in graduate school in particular, how much the schooling that people get in different social classes prepares them for their different presumed future lives. A fellow student was doing an observation study in two preschools, one serving an affluent community, and one serving a low income community. I was struck by the difference in what skills the kids were being taught. The low income preschool emphasized obedience and following rules. The higher income preschool taught the children to think for themselves how to work out situations. In a context of rule following and strict obedience, cultivating dreams is a luxury few can reach. When you add to that the enormous social obstacles that low income people have in terms of pursuing dreams, it’s no wonder that so few manage. How would anyone emerge into meaningful living when they have fewer inner resources to handle the bigger external obstacles?

Meaning and Success

Although social class can strongly color how far a person can dream and go, the privilege of meaningful work cannot be neatly packaged into class boxes. Part of the privilege of my own work is that I get to meet people across many classes, cultures, and circumstances. I am painfully aware of the gap between the envy some people have of those who have “made it” on the one hand, and the experience of depression, isolation, and emptiness so many “successful” people feel on a regular basis. Although most of us derive satisfaction from the mere experience of a job well done, I find it staggering to take in, to fully take in, how many people, including many who are highly paid, live from weekend to weekend without any meaningful connection with the work they do. Even for those whose work provides some useful service this can be soul deadening, and all the more so for those who know that their work contributes to nothing useful, and only serves to make some very few individuals amass resources to a degree unimaginable for most of human history, and out of reach for almost all of humanity at present. I can’t even begin to fathom how it is for those whose work contributes to destruction of life.

In addition, for many people, especially in the US, the strength of the message associated with material success is so intense that many remain in positions that provide no satisfaction or meaning for fear of losing their material comfort. I know this because I’ve had these conversations with people repeatedly. As people connect, in moments, with a larger or different dream, with the desire to follow their passion, or do something to contribute to change in the world, or provide an outlet to the well of love in their hearts, they reach a block when they realize that the freedom to pursue those dreams may mean radical shifts in their lifestyle. In such moments I know that even though on the material plane I have far less than many (though much more than most in the world), I am privileged beyond measure.

Privilege, Humility, and Compassion

As with every form of privilege, I know I can easily slip into believing that people are responsible for their circumstances. Before waking up to the fact of this being a form of privilege, I have, at times, been impatient with people who were struggling to find a dream, who have accepted a life I would judge as lacking meaning, who stay where they are out of fear. I am uncomfortably aware of times when I judged close friends of mine because of making choices that I thought would compromise their satisfaction in life, thereby closing my heart to them, at least partially.

Even though I can point to having had enormous courage to leave a well-paying job in the software industry in the late 1980s in order to pursue my dreams, I am actively seeking to cultivate humility about it. I don’t know what made it possible for me to take that leap and why others are afraid. Yes, I want to take credit for it, and I also want to remain open to the challenges others may face in making similar choices. I know very clearly that I am only going so far myself. I know there are many more avenues I could pursue if I had the willingness to let go of material comfort completely. I know people who have gone far further than me, in part, because of their willingness to take a fuller leap than I have, who never know, each month or day, where their food will come from, and do it by choice. I want to use the knowledge of my own limits to open my heart more and more fully to the places where others may be stuck without in any way judging them.

Perhaps, if I truly manage to find unconditional compassion for all the people who are living their lives without any hope of meaningful engagement with work, I might find more ways of supporting at least some of them in defying the dictates of our society and finding their path in life. Ultimately, however, I doubt that the solution to such pervasive lack of meaning is individual. I don’t see anything short of massive restructuring of our society that would allow all of us to have lives of dignity in which we wake up in the morning ready to engage with each day and find our way of serving life meaningfully. That is a huge topic which I explore in my book Reweaving Our Human Fabric and expect to be exploring for the rest of my life.

3 thoughts on “The Unique Privilege of Meaningful Work

  1. Jean McElhaney

    I appreciate the inquiry: What conditions give rise to "courage"? The internal and external factors that help us leap? One of my leaps came from something like desperation about a choice that was feeling more and more inauthentic, less and less alive. That, plus an inkling that another way was possible. I think the inkling came because I kept looking for it. Another of my leaps

  2. Ron Greenstein

    I have recently watched a movie (“happy”) and a PBS program (“The Happiness Advantage”) on the theme of happiness. In both, it was stated that the scientific community that has been spending a great deal of time researching the nature of happiness finds that 10% of one’s level of happiness is derived from one’s outer circumstances and resources, while 90% is derived from how one processes their

  3. Rebecca Stahl

    Wow, beautifully stated. I feel incredibly lucky to be doing the work that I do and to be able to take a path that fulfills me and has kept me interested. I now work with much less privileged people, and I see how limiting that is for them. My greatest pain now is not being able to do enough to help them see how much potential they truly have. Some days it is incredibly disheartening. Thank you


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