The world rests on work that happens outside the realm of work for hire. Family life, civic and religious life, community life of all kinds would disintegrate without it. Society benefits richly from the people and organizations bolstered by such work, but most of the rewards for doing it are strictly internal.

The dedication, creativity, and strength required to raise a family or tend a volunteer organization are unrecognized in economic terms. The work of counselor, organizer, or visionary is valued in the marketplace but seldom acknowledged, much less rewarded, outside of it. Even our president was dismissed and derided by some for his time working as a “community organizer.”

In a world that measures worth by paycheck and position, it seems miraculous that people give so much of themselves to monumental effort that is economically worthless and socially invisible. There may be some intrinsic payoff, but a great deal of the work is anything but rewarding—at least in the short term. Yet they, we, choose to do it. Amazing.

Responsible people take on difficult situations in all kinds of contexts, many of which are frustrating, unpleasant, and hurtful. “It’s part of the job,” they say, acknowledging the balance of good and bad that is part of their position and livelihood. But when the “job” has no pay, no cumulative value as professional experience, and little or no appreciation, it’s hard to maintain that equanimity.

Martyrdom in the service of anything less than the ultimate good seems to me like wasted life. And much of the time it’s hard to know what such an ultimate good would be. But when there’s a choice about what work to do, it makes sense to exercise some discernment about that choice.

I love Bob Dylan’s song, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” He tells us “It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ll have to serve somebody.” It’s true, but then there’s the problem of figuring out which is which.

What really, truly counts as working for the greater good? What is the measure of good work? What is worth serving? These aren’t rhetorical questions. This week, I really don’t know.