The Logic of Gift and the Vocation of Work

By Michael Naughton 

Dr. Michael Naughton is the director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).  He holds the Koch Chair in Catholic Studies and is a full professor in the department of Catholic Studies. Dr. Naughton also serves as board chair for Reell Precision Manufacturing. He helped coordinate and write the Vocation of the Business Leader issued by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which has been translated in over fifteen languages. He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of ten books and over fifty articles, including Getting Work Right: Labor and Leisure in a Fragmented World.

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Photo Credit: Benjamin Combs

I had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa twice in my life. One of these times was in 1995, when I gave a talk at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. My host, who was Hindu, knew I was Catholic and arranged the meeting. Mother Teresa asked us questions about our lives and our work. She also talked about her work and, in particular, her desire to open a house in China. She was asked once, “Why China?” and she responded, “My great desire is to meet anybody who has nobody.” Oh if we could live this way just a bit.

As we were leaving, Mother Teresa, with a grin on her face, said to us, “I want to give you my business card.” There was no email, phone number, or title on the card, but only the following lines:

The fruit of SILENCE is Prayer

The fruit of PRAYER is Faith

The fruit of FAITH is Love

The fruit of LOVE is Service

The fruit of SERVICE is Peace

What made Mother Teresa such a beautiful woman was her openness to God, her ability to both receive in silence, prayer and faith and give to others with great love and service.  We are looking, then, for an integrated dynamic of receiving and giving, of rest and work, of contemplation and action. Our vocation in life, like Mother Teresa’s, lays on this rhythm of receiving in silence, prayer and faith that then gives us the capacity to love and serve in our work.

In terms of receiving, Pope Benedict noted that a person “comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does but through what he accepts,” not through what he achieves but what he receives.  This receptivity creates a contemplative outlook that does not presume to take control of life, but instead accepts it as a gift.

Times of prayer in the morning, attendance at Mass, or a short prayer before a meeting are often not earth-shattering moments, but they gradually form a habit of receptivity and openness to our place in creation. They can help us to be prepared for sickness, the acceptance of criticism and failure, as well as the death of a loved one so that these difficult experiences lead us not to be bitter but better. Over a life, these moments can bring us profound growth in who we were created to be.

Our ability to receive then gives us the capacity to give. We are at our best not when we are calculating, scheming, or fixated on our self-interest, but when we are giving ourselves to others. As the Second Vatican Council put it, a person “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”  This notion of gift reveals our very nature as human persons.

A powerful story that reveals this gifted character of life, this law of gift, is found in Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, in which he speaks of the “gift economy.” Hyde recounts that when Native Americans encountered Puritans in their first set of gift encounters, they were baffled by the Puritans’ possessiveness over gifts given them.  The Native Americans expected their English visitors to give their gifts so as to keep them in circulation. This idea of setting gifts in motion equally baffled the English newcomers, who characterized Native Americans with the derogatory term “Indian givers.”

What the Native Americans understood is that there is a natural law governing gifts: when a gift is not shared, it corrupts the holder. The one who makes the gift an occasion for selfish hoarding, who fails to put the gift in motion, becomes corrupted by the gift itself. It is the law of the gift.

While most of us probably do not think that we work only for ourselves, there are subtle ways in which our gifts can turn on us. I often find that I am most connected to my work, my family, my church, and my community when I am giving to something larger than myself. Yet I also find that the longer I give to a certain place or project, the more my giving can turn into a calculation with an interior price.

I have been at my university for over twenty-five years and have prided myself on waking up early almost every morning, working on articles, books, and other projects such as this one. In many of those works, I have collaborated with colleagues at St. Thomas, at other universities, and with Church and business leaders. The fruit of this work has been a project we call Catholic Studies. Almost invariably, however, in the midst of my labor, I would find myself comparing my efforts to those of my colleagues. Then would come my internal whining spirit: Why I am doing sixty, seventy, or eighty percent of the work here? Why am I the one making all the sacrifices? Why aren’t the others pulling their load?

My “giving” would thus often lead to a form of victimization, which would be followed by resentment, cynicism, or anger. It was all quite subtle. I hardly noticed the gradual development of these attitudes, but, though subtle, the process was very real. My self-imposed martyrdom was not only neutralizing the potency of what I was giving, but actually turning my gift into a form self-aggrandizement. I would “do more than my fair share” with a chip on my shoulder. I did my duty, but without spirit and under a love that was growing cold.

This is why the Latin phrase nemo dat quod non habet, “no one gives what he does not have,” is so critical to our discussion. Whoever we are and whatever we do—whether CEO, pope, entrepreneur, mother, father, professor, or plumber—our work by itself will exhaust us. We need to receive what we do not have. And we need to constantly rediscover the gifts that have been given to us and confess the ways we have misused and disordered them. If we are to give rightly, we need to learn to receive rightly.

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The divided life is a temptation so built into our society, we may not even recognize it. Yet most of us fall prey to it. We either undervalue work, resenting it as simply a job, or we overvalue it as an identity-defining career. Michael Naughton, drawing on his background in both business and theology, proposes that the key to finding balance is another important human activity: leisure. In light of leisure—not mere amusement, but time for family, silence, prayer, and above all, worship—work becomes a space where men and women can find deep fulfillment. Naughton provides real-world examples of how businesses can promote authentic human flourishing and innovation through practices and policies that support leisure.

In Getting Work Right Michael Naughton will change how you work—and rest.