"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men." - Colossians 3:23
I'm tempted to begin this post with some raw romanticism and declare passionately that I love working. On second thought, I think I will borrow a wiser and more subtle sentiment from the archetypical craftsman James Krenov: "I don't love working. It is working well that I love."
We live in a culture in which everything is just something on the way to something else. Few things are loved and enjoyed for their own sake. This is especially true of anything related to work, and particularly labor (seeing as they are no longer synonymous terms.)
Work is - or rather ought to be - sacramental. You may hold whatever theory you like regarding work as an evil result of the Fall - I do not intend to explore the matter here, preferring to deal with the innate human inspiration toward creativity and craftsmanship, which I hold to be plain empirical reality. (If you don't regard this internal fire as plain empirical reality, you may as well stop reading right now.)
In the early chapters of The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the Valar; immortal, small-g gods, equivalent to high angels or spirits of heaven. They each have particular passions and powers, and it is with difficulty that I refrain from describing all of them to you in detail. Scarcely in time do I remember that is not what I am writing about. I am here concerned with only one.
Aule was nigh to the noblest of the Valar, and he it was who took thought for "the fabric of Earth":
"The delight and pride of Aule is in the deed of making and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery; wherefore he gives and hoards not, and is free from care, passing ever on to some new work."
-J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Houghton Mifflin (1977), p. 19
That is the ultimate romantic ideal: the pure joy of making, unspoiled by materialism. That is what I'm talking about. And that is precisely the thing that is being lost, because, after all, it is impractical, and everyone knows that impracticality is the cardinal sin of our times.
I was encouraged a few days ago to read an excellent secular article on working soulfully, probably among the best writing ever published on the subject. In it, the author makes a vigorous case for competence and "connectedness" - spiritual dimensions of satisfying work that are now being ruthlessly sacrificed on the altar of social efficiency. It is quite worthwhile to read the whole thing - print it out if you prefer - and spend a quiet moment pondering how we think about the things we do.
In the late summer of 2005, something started to change in my work habits and bearing as a tradesman. My knowledge began to reach a critical mass, and the result was an entirely new feeling of confidence and security. I began to work with the material, rather than against it, and to enjoy the way it acquiesced to my will beneath knife and blade. I began to cherish the emotional delight hidden in the most minute and menial details of the job. It felt something like having your own small renaissance.
"The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away."
- Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft
I've fired millions of nails, laid miles of decking, shimmed a few hundred doors, and carried thousands of pounds of concrete. I've broken tools, fixed them again, made mistakes, gotten hurt, gotten scared, improvised, and even invented a time or two.
It gives you a sense of history; a sense of having "been there." Your eye is sharper, your hands are steadier, and your thought processes are cool and weighted with experience. There is much higher to go, to be sure, but there is a marked and welcome difference between the sultry air of the valley and the bracing breeze of the mountainside.
Of course, it's not just about sniffing sawdust with a dreamy look on your face. My family will tell you that I am fond of quoting David Brown's stoical maxim, "Work is difficult - that's why it's called work." Fatigue, the foreshadowing presence of death, is built into the universe. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes understood perhaps best of all the grim implications of mortality: "All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it." It cannot be expressed in words. It is a groan.
However, the imminent reality of death should not be used to negate the value of passionate work; indeed, this is the only sane response. Those who understand are easy to recognize: you can see it burning in their eyes. They are tired, yes, but smiling.
"There was so much work left to do / but so much you'd already done" - Rich Mullins, Sometimes By Step
Image courtesy of polandpoland.com