Have you heard the parable of the bricklayers?
The setting is London. Just after midnight on a Sunday in early September 1666, a fire breaks out in a small bakery. The wind quickly fans the flames into a firestorm that sweeps through the medieval city.
The Great Fire of London leaves most of the city in ruins in four days, including the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral. Crews get to work, and most of London is reconstructed by 1671. But rebuilding St. Paul’s will take 33 years. From this reconstruction period, we get the story of three bricklayers.
It goes like this:
One morning, a young girl walks by the cathedral construction site and sees three men laying bricks on a low scaffold. She stops by the first bricklayer and asks, “What are you doing?”
“I’m laying bricks,” the man says. “I’m working hard to feed my family.”
The girl continues to where the second man is perched, spreading mortar and quickly placing bricks. Again, she asks, “What are you doing?”
The second bricklayer’s response is similar: “I’m constructing a wall,” he says. “I’m a builder, and I’m working on this cathedral.”
The girl walks further to where the third man is working and asks the same question: “What are you doing?”
The man stops whistling, looks up from his work, and smiles at her. “Well,” he says with pride in his voice, “I’m a cathedral builder. I am building the house of God.”
Same work, different beliefs
I share the story of the bricklayers with my students to illustrate how three people doing the same work can have very different experiences.
Most people need to work to live. But for some people, work is meaningful and enjoyable, while it feels like necessary toil for others. Why is this?
The terms “job,” “career,” and “calling” can help us understand these differing experiences, which stem from different beliefs about the purpose of work.
The first bricklayer has a job. Laying bricks needs to be done so he can get a paycheck and feed his family. People who experience work as a job believe the purpose of working is to get paid so they can pay the bills. They might say: “I work in construction” or “I work in an office.”