A model for the day-in, day-out

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Every week, the police in Calais, France remove or cut up the tents of refugees seeking asylum in the U.K. These men, most of whom came from the Middle East and eastern Africa, are trying to reach southern England through the underwater rail tunnel that runs from Calais to Folkestone under the English Channel.

They live on no means but the goods distributed by volunteer aid organizations like L’Auberge des Migrants, where two friends and I volunteered for two weeks in May. The police often confiscate the men’s possessions and firewood during the raids, and when I visited a clearing where many refugees were staying, the police had beaten three of them the night before.

L’Auberge processes donations and, alongside a few other groups, distributes them to the refugee sites. The pressure of this work – i.e. an awareness of its absolute necessity – would surely drive some to overwork themselves and to burnout if it weren’t for the efficient schedule and attitudes of the volunteers.

The workday at the warehouse starts at 9:30 a.m. with an encouraging meeting led by the manager of the warehouse. We’re told that we must take two days off each weak – rest is crucial to stay sane and to do our best work.

In one half of the warehouse, the volunteers measure, check for quality and sort men’s and women’s clothing, blankets, backpacks, etc. Not particularly large as far as warehouses go, this one is adorned with (often emphatic) instructional signs in French, English, or both. (At the behest of a French supervisor, my friend Isaac made a sign explaining how to sort clothes – she had finally reached the point in her two-hour conniption when she decided to act.

The other half of the warehouse contains boxes of goods ready to be delivered, a makeshift car repair shop (I don’t know whose cars are fixed or why), and an enormous pile of clothes unsuitable for the refugees.

Along the back wall, partly hidden by empty cardboard boxes, a large white panel painted handprints with various messages (possibly graffiti), some legible and others not. They were encouragements, political claims and calls for international action in Europe’s migrant crisis.

At 12:45 p.m., the hour-long lunch break starts, and it’s practically mandatory. The workday ends at 6 p.m., and working late is hardly tolerated. This planned, inviolable rest enables the motivated to work hard without feeling driven to work too much for their well-being.

A respect for time off is necessary for workaholics and sluggards alike – many of us who struggle to stay motivated simply fail to rest sufficiently.

In fact, during a training session in one of the offices in the warehouse, I noticed a small sign hanging above the whiteboard: “When was your last day off?”

At the warehouse, I felt unusually driven to do my best, even while doing the most menial of tasks. The necessity of the work was obvious to me, so I was able to work with urgency and attention.

To do our best work, our job must be important to us. That is to say, we must make it important, no matter how meaningless it seems. We must work to serve God and others, or our work will mean nothing to us. If we work in service like this, any job – from landscaping to dog-sitting to activism – can be done with vigor and inspired effort.

L’Auberge taught me that hard work depends not on toughness and gritted teeth but on deliberate rest and on a higher purpose that comes not from the work itself, but from the worker’s desire to serve.

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