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On Work and the Spirit- Anthony Tokarz

Thanks to Seton Hall’s transfer credit policy, I will graduate this Spring after just three years of study. This gives Seton Hall’s role as “a place for the mind, heart, and spirit” a tangible sense of urgency in my life—in just a few months I will leave her nurturing to apply what she taught me. This summer, I realized that, for all her wisdom, Seton Hall had not prepared me to answer the essential question, “For what purpose?”

The importance of this question hit me without warning last June: as soon as I stepped off Seton Hall’s campus to pursue a summer internship with a major company, I found myself caught off guard by what seemed like an innocuous, even beneficent proposition. Indeed, an invitation to compete in a company-wide fitness challenge forced me to reconsider what I thought I knew about myself, my purpose, and my relationship with my job.

My summer company was like Seton Hall in many ways—my department feels a lot like the School of Diplomacy, my supervisors feel like professors, and my coworkers feel like friends working toward achieving a fulfilling career. Yet while Seton Hall University sees itself as that “home for the mind, body, and spirit”, my company (which I will not name, out of respect for the opportunity it provides me) makes no claim other than to provide a nurturing professional environment for the completion of job-related tasks. Furthermore, Seton Hall’s vision better lends itself to reflection about its purpose and where it will lead me in my life, because its Catholic mission revolves around God. The fitness challenge forced me to confront certain shortcomings of the company’s vision and purpose, which I believe exist in all companies to a certain extent, and to share some of my reflections from following God out of the meticulousness at work.

I had always answered the question of what comes after college with an easy and obvious answer: a career. This summer, delighted by my job’s cozy office building with generous cubicle space and limitless free coffee, I felt as though I had taken a major step toward adulthood and its attendant responsibilities. The excitement of receiving a paycheck and making productive impacts on important projects distracted me from the increasing amounts of time I spent in the office and the inescapability of my routine. Though my more perceptive friends and family kept pointing out to me how little time I had to spend with them, I considered my new lifestyle normal. I thought I had struck an acceptable work-life balance, and that my job allowed me to devote my free time to meaningful activities.

More than that, I thought of my job itself as meaningful because it supports the activities of related departments, even though I spent so much of my time editing spreadsheets for people higher up the hierarchy in more specialized roles. When headquarters sent out that invitation to the fitness challenge, I formed a team with my friends, eager to live a fit life and to beat all the other teams. I felt that I had to help my team to win, lest I disappoint my department and friends. Within a week it became apparent that I had put my job first— though I worked out, all that energy went into my spreadsheet editing the next morning. I wondered why no one had ever warned how quickly life rebuilds itself around a job.

In general, every company will strive to earn its employees’ loyalty, often without them noticing. My company’s fitness challenge, just like the perks it and other companies offer, has the ostensible purpose of improving the quality of my life.

An improvement in the health of my lifestyle causes a boost in my energy, attentiveness, and happiness. However, I have found it instructive to consider other motives.

My company sees enough value in my work to pay me for it, and so wants me to be healthy and happy enough to do that work. This operation does not exclude the influence of genuine concern and even affection for me, but when my company orients itself to the primary purpose of selling its products, it also relegates me, as it does with all its employees, farther down its list of priorities.

Thus, while my company may invest in its relationship with me—as might any company in any employee—the underlying interest can only ever be somewhat imperfect, because it is the consequence of a calculation designed to boost its bottom line by orienting its employees and customers. In this light, the meaningfulness of my job and the relationships it incubates are incidental, rather than necessary, aspects of my burgeoning career.

Furthermore, I hesitate to call something as wholly good if its goodness reaches only so far as the company’s initiatives for shoring up the support of its employees. Yet, many of us would likely agree that work can only have meaning if situated and understood in a broader context that considers the roots and ultimate purpose of our lives.

Evaluating my own suspicions about work reveals a startling conclusion: I had felt disappointed by the value of work in my life because I felt it did not bring me enough “spirit”. Though I had planted one foot in “the real world” and so averted the anxiety that I would otherwise waste my summer, the work itself did nothing to bolster my sense of self or enrich my life from an existential perspective because I could not see it in the context of my relationship with the Spirit.

I wondered, why had no one at Seton Hall warned me about this? At that moment, I had tripped on a pothole on the road to adulthood, and I knew I needed more than a paycheck or line on my resume to fill it in—I needed prayer to bring my work back into God’s orbit.

Bringing Christ into these epistemological questions has been a constitutive element of how Seton Hall has provided me with a home over the past few years. Thanks to the willingness of my professors to make time for me outside of class, and to entertain my more eccentric questions during class time, I have matured not only as a student, but also as a young adult trying to live an upright life. Through the outreach efforts of Campus Ministry, I have discovered a dynamic Roman Catholicism that pushes me to brush aside my excuses and better understand myself in the context of my relationship with God in prayer and daily living.

At Seton Hall, I study Diplomacy and Economics.  In my Economics courses the claims about utility and happiness may hold up on neat graphs, but not in my lived experience. Most people have an opinion on how Economics can build an ideal society, and this opinion derives from considerations over who should decide on how to allocate resources—the government, the market, or some amalgam of both. Last summer I had the chance to be the one who decides how I should allocate my own resources: my mind, my heart and my spirit. I’ve concluded that I didn’t get the balance correct first off. I know now that Seton Hall’s “home for the mind, heart and spirit”, has to mean, “mind, heart and Holy Spirit.”

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Photo Courtesy of Anthony Tokarz

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