Excellence with labor

In this graduation season, I am aware of those who have shown what to me appears almost unfathomable dedication, sometimes over several years, to complete a degree. Some examples are on my Facebook feed, such as a friend’s wife who, all while being a wife and mother, at last finished her Ph.D. in microbiology. Yesterday I talked with a close friend who earned his RN degree in one year through an accelerated program.  As he described the past year to me, I was in awe of what he had accomplished. He now heads straight into masters and doctoral level work in nursing.


Graduation ceremonies have always been moving for me. For some reason whenever I see a processional of students in robes and hear Pomp and Circumstance, whether it is for kindergarteners or doctoral candidates, I find myself tearing up. There is something about a sense of achievement and progress that I find very meaningful. For a moment, upon hearing about my friends graduating and seeing their robed photos on Facebook, I felt wistful, wishing that I had more to show for the work I do every day, throughout the course of which I sometimes ask myself if I am really making a difference.


As I hear about these people who have worked so steadily and thoroughly to reach these goals, whether over a long stretch or in a shorter sprint, a question comes up that also arose in my thoughts after I watched the movie Spotlight (winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture). I was deeply moved by the relentless efforts of the Boston Globe reporters in the film to research and present an accurate article about a very troubling and important story. And I asked myself: “Am I willing to put that same level of dedication into my work?”


Of course I want to say yes with all my heart. The desire is there. But what does it look like to carry it out? And am I willing to do it? In my work as a Christian Science practitioner, it can sometimes feel as if the demands are more abstract and less defined than needing to get a story written for a newspaper deadline, completing research for a published study, or preparing for an exam in a course. But the need is great and deserves to be taken seriously. When someone calls me for help, my work is mainly of a mental nature. But why should I approach it with any less focus and commitment than my friend who is eagerly learning all that he can to be a phenomenal nurse in a hospital?


As I pondered these questions, I had the thought to look up “no excellence without labor” in a concordance to Mary Baker Eddy’s writings. In Science and Health, she writes, “Christian Science is not an exception to the general rule, that there is no excellence without labor in a direct line.” (p. 457). So why does that labor sometimes feel rather elusive or hard to define? Maybe because it is so vital and yet so foreign to the generally accepted norms for what constitutes productivity. 


Very regularly I have to refute (in my own thought) the claim that my work is amorphous and not really accomplishing anything because society doesn’t recognize it as significant or sometimes even those among my own friends and family find it strange. The best way I have found to counter these suggestions is to rededicate myself to the work and ask myself if I am approaching it with as much focus and earnestness as I can and as the people who call me deserve.


On a practical level, each Christian Science practitioner might have a different answer for what this “labor in a direct line” looks like. Mrs. Eddy gives some basic guidance on how to meet this demand in Miscellaneous Writings: “There is no excellence without labor; and the time to work, is now. Only by persistent, unremitting, straightforward toil; by turning neither to the right nor to the left, seeking no other pursuit or pleasure than that which cometh from God, can you win and wear the crown of the faithful.” (p. 340).


I remember reading the above quote once and feeling it sounded very harsh. But as I consider the experiences of my friends who have put such “persistent, unremitting, straightforward toil” into their academic programs and those I know who are deeply devoted to their careers, I find this to be more of a rousing message than a frightening one.


As I have made an effort to approach my work with more discipline, be it by getting up earlier to have sufficient time to pray for myself or declining social invitations in order to focus more fully on the needs of a patient, I have found these choices to bring more freedom than confinement. And perhaps the most encouraging thought in pursuing a greater commitment to our work, whatever type of work it is, comes in the knowledge that we are not alone in our efforts. Philippians 2:12 promises, “God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (New Living Translation). With the understanding that God is truly doing the work and even giving us the desire to be part of that work, we can all find joy and freedom even in the midst of toil and labor that ultimately does lead to excellence…whether or not we get a diploma or a fancy cap and gown along the way.