If we think of ourselves as merely biological creatures, whose story is determined by genetics or environment or history or economics or technology, then, however pleasant or painful the part we play, it cannot matter much. Its significance is that of mere self-concern. 'It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,' as Macbeth says when he has 'supp'd full with horrors' and is 'aweary of the sun.'
If we think of ourselves as lofty souls trapped temporarily in lowly bodies in a dispirited, desperate, unlovable world that we must despise for Heaven's sake, then what have we done for this question of significance? If we divide reality into two parts, spiritual and material, and hold (as the Bible does not hold) that only the spiritual is good or desirable, then our relation to the material Creation becomes arbitrary, having only the quantitative or mercenary value that we have, in fact and for this reason, assigned to it. Thus, we become the judges and inevitably the destroyers of a world we did not make and that we are bidden to understand as a divine gift. It is impossible to see how good work might be accomplished by people who think that our life in this world either signifies nothing or has only a negative significance.
If, on the other hand, we believe that we are living souls, God's dust and God's breath, acting our parts among other creatures all made of the same dust and breath as ourselves; and if we understand that we are free, within the obvious limits of mortal human life, to do evil or good to ourselves and to other creatures- then all our acts have supreme significance. If it is true that we are living souls and morally free, then all of us are artists. All of us are makers, within mortal terms and limits, of our lives, of one another's lives, of things we need and use.
This, Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote, is 'the normal view,' which 'assumes . . . not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler or parasite is necessarily some kind of artist. But since even mere idlers and parasites may be said to work inescapably, by proxy or influence, it might be better to say that everybody is an artist- either good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. Any life, by working or not by working, by working well or poorly, inescapably changes other lives and so changes the world. This is why our division of the 'fine arts' from 'craftsmanship,' and 'craftsmanship from 'labor,' is so arbitrary, meaningless, and destructive. As Walter Shewring rightly said, both 'the plowman and the potter have a cosmic function.' And bad art in any trade dishonors and damages Creation.
If we think of ourselves as living souls, immortal creatures, living in the midst of a Creation that is mostly mysterious, and if we see everything we make or do cannot help but have an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood work as a form of prayer. We see why the old poets invoked the muse. And we know why George Herbert prayed in his poem 'Mattens':
Teach me thy love to know; That this new light, which now I see, May both the work and workman show.
Work connects us both to Creation and to eternity. This is the reason also for Mother Ann Lee's famous instruction: 'Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live on earth, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.'"
Wendell Berry's essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, pp. 109-11