I’m about halfway through my pregnancy and have started talking to my belly at random times. I was in the middle of a bartending shift recently and said, Cora, I really hope you get to be a bartender one day. I didn’t feel this way 10 years ago when I started in the restaurant industry. I didn’t even feel this way 3 years ago. My view of work was so deeply distorted by our culture’s understanding of what was valuable that the hospitality industry was only a means to an end for me. My shift in perspective didn’t happen overnight, so I try not to get discouraged by the many comments from people eluding to the trivial nature of what I do. They don't mean it to be offensive, they are just operating from the understanding that I once was, that hospitality work is about getting through school or just getting by.
Society’s view of work is deeply flawed. Our culture values certain jobs above others. It’s just the reality that we live in. White collar is superior to blue collar. We tend to judge value based on salary, educational requirements, use of technology, amount of “knowledge work,” or level of autonomy/entrepreneurship. Creative endeavors and traditional “helping” professions also tend to be praised. While all of these fields are good and necessary, these superiority structures only put people with certain gifts and callings up on a pedestal while demeaning the work of others. We may take for granted the vital work of our mechanic until our breaks give out. We lose sight of the integrality of our sanitation workers until they strike and our streets are flowing with filth. And no one heads to the back of the restaurant after enjoying a meal to thank the dish washer for his or her diligent work. But think, there would be no meal to enjoy without clean cutting boards and knives, pots and pans or plates to put it on. Some of the most essential, good work goes unnoticed or dismissed because it doesn’t fit our criteria of importance. It seems to lack the prestige or the creativity that we value for today.
Working in restaurants is humbling. Not in a self-defeating way, but in the true sense of the word- in the deeply meaningful experience of serving others in love. As I have pressed deeper into what hospitality means, the ugliness in my heart and the brokenness in our world have been increasingly revealed. The most basic human experiences like eating, drinking and relating are deeply marred. In my worst moments I am cursing people under my breath, but in my best moments, I experience a pure love for strangers poured forth in the small details of my work. It is nothing short of magical.
We view our work through our lens of individualism. America is the most individualistic culture there ever was. So much of who we are and what we do is shaped by our celebration of the individual person. We uphold personal happiness, freedom, success, expression, etc. where other cultures might more readily emphasize many aspects of a flourishing community. This has deeply shaped how we view our work because we tend to focus first on our personal enjoyment, status, earnings, etc. When we are connected to the communal effects of our work we begin to awaken something very essential to our humanity. Work is meant to draw out blessing from the world for the sake of others. When we isolate our work from this end, we quickly feel the dehumanizing effects.
In times long ago, in a less globalized world, before bonuses and salary raises were our motivation for working hard, men and women knew the people who would benefit from their work. Whether this was done on the family farm or in the local village- your communal identity was the driving force for doing good and meaningful work. The unfortunate reality of much of what we do today is that we, or others along the supply chain, are removed from the ones for whom we labor. Motivation no longer has a face or a name but a numerical figure on our W2s. We need to renew our minds to see the many ways our work benefits our neighbors near and far.
We don’t allow our pain to inform what we do. When we are thinking in terms of comfort and happiness we tend to run from our areas of pain rather than pressing into them. But our pain gives us a window into some of the most intimate needs or our world. It also carves out tender places in our heart that help us to do our work with a genuine concern that can’t be otherwise fabricated. Pain is a gift that we would never choose but we should never waste. In an upcoming post I’m going to share about my recent experience with an unspeakable loss and how it has shaped my work.
We should consider our unique talents and passions and think of how those can best serve others. There is no one in the world or in all of history with the unique experiences, interests or opportunities as you. It is a really special thing to be able to engage the world, to love, in a way that no one else really can. This form of individual expression aimed to serve our neighbor is so much better than self promotion for the sake of no one (including ourselves). The latter isolates us and neglects those around us, the former is walking in the fullness of our broken but magnificent humanity. An upcoming post will consider love as the motivation for our work.
Whatever industry you’re in, take time to reflect on the people and services that are undervalued. Offer encouragement where its needed and allow yourself to imagine the many unseen ways that you and your team are bringing good gifts to those you serve.
An Ode to my Industry
The hospitality industry is rife with opportunities to cultivate beauty from our world. Opportunities to partner with people in some of their most intimate moments to create experiences that may stay with them for life.
In a world where we often don’t have a sense of place and often feel disconnected, we get to explore how our food and drink can tell stories about where we are. We get to offer people tastes and smells and sights that imprint a deeper sense of home.
In a culture where we primarily work with our minds, I get to make something with my hands. I get to cut and shake, measure and stir, muddle and pour. Among the many jobs that rarely get to see the final product of their work, I watch as my guest takes the first sip of a cocktail I created just for them. In a world short on meaningful connection, I create experiences that offer just that. In a land where fast food is still on every corner and mindless consumption is a way of life, I invite people to stop and taste the rich potential in a well crafted meal. And most importantly to me- in this volatile life that is full of heartbreak and joy- I hope to be a source of genuine care for who you are and what you need from me in this one or two or more hours we share together.
I lose sight of this 100 times in a night. But I continually seek to accept the challenge and gift of my work. To all of my fellow hospitality workers: take pride as you go into your shift because you have been entrusted with constructing intimate experiences with some of the most foundational material in this world- food, drink and human relationships. You are an engineer in the truest sense.
So Cheers to you- but more important- cheers to your guests as you serve them with a true fervor that comes from believing in the value of what you do.