This week I started reading the book ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ by Neil MacGregor. Like the Radio 4 series from which it is derived, the book seeks to relay the story of the last however many years of world history through various exhibits that can currently be found in the British Museum. Chapter 2 is about the Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool found by Louis Leakey in the Olduvai Gorge of northern Tanzania in 1931. At the time the item was the oldest man made tool ever found, one that is considered by some to be almost 2 million years old.
What I found particularly interesting to read was how the sharp cutting implement is believed to be better than it actually needed to be for its intended purpose. David Attenborough says of it,
‘It is something created from a natural substance for a particular purpose, and in a particular way, with a notion in the maker’s mind of what he needed it for. Is it more complex than was needed to actually serve the function he used it for? I think you could almost say it is. Did he really need to do one, two, three, four, five chips on one side and three on the other? Could he have got away with two? I think he may have done so. I think the man or woman who held this made it just for that particular job and got some satisfaction from knowing that it was going to do it very effectively, very economically and very neatly. In time, you would say he’d done it beautifully, but maybe not yet. It was the start of a journey.’
MacGregor goes on to suggest that right from the beginning we have ‘felt the urge to make things more sophisticated than they need to be’ and that part of what it is to be human is to not only be creative but to strive to make things that are beautiful.
Which got me thinking as to why it might be that so many of us find our work so unsatisfying. Could, the reason be that the advice we all to often receive that ‘good enough’ is good enough wrong – in terms of what that means for both ourselves and others. What if we have a need to do more than the bare minimum? What if satisfaction comes from being better than we need to be? What if happiness comes from bringing about something that is beautiful?
As a GP I have never been less satisfied in my working life. For years I have felt restricted by the guidelines and protocols that sometimes prevent me from doing what might actually be best for the individual who is sat with me in my consulting room. But now I am even more constrained, not only by a workload so intense that there is all too often only time to do what might be considered the bare minimum, but also by the lack of services available to me should I find myself wanting to offer them to my patient. Only occasionally can I be creative in my job, only occasionally can I do more than what is essential, and only occasionally can I do something that is truly beautiful at work.
No wonder the job has lost its appeal. No wonder I no longer feel I do a good job.
But if that is the case for me, somebody who is fortunate indeed to do a job that does nonetheless retain some inherent worth, how much harder must it be for those whose time at work is little more than the monotonous and mindless repetition of an activity that has little value other than to make money for those who employ them and who are thus in a position to pay their all too often meagre wages.
Our work is part of who we are, and part of who we are is our work. Irrespective then of whether, like me, you consider this need to be productive a consequence of our being made in the image of a creative God or whether you hold no such theological rationale for your beliefs, for any of us to think that the nature of our work isn’t important, both in terms of the meaning it can give to our lives and the boost it gives to our emotional well-being, is to be sadly mistaken.
By way of example let me relate an incident I had some years ago when I went to the home of a young lad who had been vomiting all day and was thus too unwell to come to the surgery. The need for a visit had only become apparent after the surgery had closed for the day but rather than handing it over to the out of hours service I chose to make the call myself on my way home. When I arrived at the house the diagnosis was all too obviously that of meningitis and so intravenous penicillin was administered and I waited with the patient until the ambulance arrived and took him off to hospital where he subsequently made a full recovery. As it happened I had been due to attend the 80th birthday party of a friend of mine that evening and when I inevitably arrived exceedingly late for the celebrations I was greeted with expressions of sympathy by those who, because of my tardiness, assumed I must have had a terrible day. The truth of course was quite different, because my day, though long, and been infinitely worthwhile. Being able to make a difference had made the day a genuinely great one – one that made me feel good in a way that only helping others can. Being able to go what some might have considered the extra mile proved to be good both for me and my patient whereas a seemingly ‘good enough’ referral to out of hours may have proved to have been not good enough for either of us.
What then is the answer to our current ennui? The answer is no doubt a complex one but as well as simply being the means of earning a wage, one that should, incidentally, be both fair and sufficient to live on, our work must, at the very least, afford us all the freedom to be genuinely creative at work, the opportunity to be productive and enable us to do something that is genuinely worthwhile. Because in so doing, though we may not change the world, as well as benefiting ourselves, we may just make a world of difference to others.
And that really will be good enough, because that will have been to bring about something that is truly beautiful.
To read ‘On keeping what we dare not lose’, click here
To read ‘On Being Overwhelmed’ click here
To read ‘Bagpuss and the NHS’, click here
To read ‘Health – it’ll be the death of us. Is there institutional arrogance in the NHS?’, click here
To read ‘The NHS – the “S’” is for “Service”, not “Slave”’, click here
To click ‘Something to reflect on’, click here
To read ‘The Repair Shop’, click here
To read ‘The Medical Condition or Hannah Arendt is completely fine’, click here
To read ‘The Abolition of General Practice’, click here
To read ‘Blaming it on the Boogie’, click here
To read ‘On being crazy busy – a ticklish problem’, click here
To read ‘Too busy to be happy’, click here
To read ‘Contactless’, click here
To read ‘From A Distance’, click here
To read ‘General Practice – a sweet sorrow’, click here
To read ‘I’ll miss this when we’re gone’, click here
To read ‘The Reintroduction of GPs Anonymous’, click here
To read ‘Mr Benn – the GP’, click here
To read ‘A Bear called Paddington’, click here
To read ‘The Three Little GPs and the Big Bad Secretary of State for Health’, click here
To read ‘A Mission Impossible’, click here
To read ‘A Hard Year For Us All’, click here