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Against the Balance and Towards Covenant
Abba Evagrius once asked Abba Arsenius why it was that although they worked hard at gaining knowledge and learning why they did not seem to possess the virtues that the Egyptian peasants had. Abba Arsenius replied, 'Being intent upon the discipline of worldly learning we gain nothing. But these Egyptian peasants gain virtue from the way they work.'
Work is fundamental to the human experience. Anyone who says otherwise, must have never done good work. Or read Genesis.
"Through painful toil you will eat food from the cursed ground all your life."
But - though we may toil, that isn't all bad. At the end of the day, there is a distinction between what I call 'exhaustion' and 'tiredness'. Both have the same endpoint - a depletion of energy with no more self to give; but the term 'exhaustion' implies that something was exhausted. If one is tired, they may have never had something to exhaust in the first place.
Exhaustion is a good. And while there are many well-learned who have said it, this is such a popular and common notion that I can only defer to the man in black:
"If you were a baker, and the bread you made kept someone from being hungry; If you were a weaver and the cloth you made kept someone warm, then your life has been meaningful."
If you've ever worked a day picking corn, or chopping trees, or framing a house, or on and on, you know the feeling. There is a synergy of feelings: physical exhaustion, seeing your mastery over the world, knowing how you have helped someone somewhere, and, ultimately, of self-gift.
Indeed, it is through the free gift of self that man truly finds himself. This gift is made possible by the human person's essential "capacity for transcendence". Man cannot give himself to a purely human plan for reality, to an abstract ideal or to a false utopia. As a person, he can give himself to another person or to other persons, and ultimately to God, who is the author of his being and who alone can fully accept his gift.
Centessimus Annus, 41, Pope John Paul II
This last one is the most important. The days where I have felt this positive exhaustion were not because of a big fat paycheck at the end. If they were, the paycheck was the cherry on the top, not the fundamental thing. There is a reason why "compensation" bears a negative connotation, and a reason why we use it in reference to pay. It's transactional. Contractual.
God's love for man- the love we strive to emulate, and which we are most fulfilled by- is covenant. I think that word is lost on us sometimes. A covenant is not a contract. In a contract, one party not upholding their end of the deal is grounds for the other to not do their part either. A contract can be broken or dissolved. None of these are true of covenant.
Covenants cannot be broken or dissolved. One party not upholding their end is no excuse - both parties strive towards their ideal laid out. This means that failure to uphold does not cause dissolution, only damage and harm to the relationship.
This sort of covenant is what John Paul II is referring to by "genuinely supportive community":
Alienation is found also in work, when it is organized so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labour, grows or diminishes as a person, either through increased sharing in a genuinely supportive community or through increased isolation in a maze of relationships marked by destructive competitiveness and estrangement, in which he is considered only a means and not an end.
Centessimus Annus, 41, Pope John Paul II
Through work man must earn his daily bread, and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. […] Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.
Laborem Exercens, 1, Pope John Paul II
Money serves an obvious purpose: it allows us to exchange value from one place to another; it supplants trust that one is upholding the covenant of reality. It doesn’t do this perfectly, but that is its aim. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts rave about how we can usher in a ‘trustless society’ with such technology, and while from a mere materialist standpoint this is wonderful, this mode of economic behavior detracts from being a person in a community of other persons, and instead becomes a wallet in a transaction - mere faceless producer or consumer.
Money is a problem insofar as it creates additional layers of cruft that prevent us from seeing the underlying person - in all their virtues, vices, skills, talents, failings, and ailments.
The nature of the technologist is to quantify and systematize; to create these additional layers. The wise technologist, though, must be careful not to overdo this, lest he fall into aforementioned grave error.
Covenant, in its all-encompassing, has a mystical element to it. It’s sometimes difficult to identify who is the giver, who is the receiver; the two commune in the realest sense; they unite. There’s always a bit of gift in the receipt and receipt in the gift. And so on, recursively. This covenant nature is well-portrayed in the garden (and why it is our creation story).
The garden serves a multitude of purposes, and is an interplay of life. The gardener pulls weeds, uses them to make compost which refreshes the soil in which the gardener has planted seeds; these seeds eventually bear fruit which in turn nourishes the gardener. Even these actions that gardener has undertaken serve to exercise and grow his muscles. The effects of all of this are network. If one would try to bookkeep every single aspect, they would be forced to lump so much under the column of ‘waste’ that the garden would make no sense; it should not persist. Yet because it is integrated, all of the little inefficiencies still bear fruit - the waste is useful. Though weeds may crop up, they are crushed and become new compost. Though the laborer may be exhausted and work too hard, he still exercises himself and gains in stature.
If the gardener systematized too thoroughly, his garden would disintegrate. Demanding perfect inputs, he would be forced to throw the weeds to the asheap and import chemical fertilizer. Demanding perfect outputs such as physical health, he would go to the gym and toil lifting weights, depleting himself and needing to import energy to tend his garden. If one is preoccupied seeking perfection on one particular ground, the entire picture fails. If one instead focuses on the entire relationship, the garden flourishes.
This mirrors exactly what happened in Eden; man sought perfect knowledge of good and evil as its own end, instead of understanding what the source and destination of that good was: God himself, and our relationship towards him. Choosing idealized perfection, we imbalanced paradise, and disintegrated our relationship to the divine.
This has rammifications for our daily lives. Consider the act of driving a car to the gym, then to a restaurant afterwards. Compare this to chopping some wood, then toiling in one’s before cooking a meal with the fruits of said garden and the firewood. Maybe you drive a Prius that gets 50 miles to the gallon. But isn’t the second, integrated vision still more efficient?
It’s doubtless more beautiful than the strip malls I’m imagining in the first picture.
Engineers and scientists, us systematizing thinkers, often struggle with this. We want clear lines; we want nicely behaving modules that we can stick together and pull apart easily; things we can break down and study. Yet, there is an unspoken truth I have noticed embodied by all keen craftsmen: everything affects everything, and so practice trumps theory. What ultimately matters is the practice; the living out of something in its real environment. The lab only matters if it translates to the field. The in vitro (in glass) is useless if it does not work in vivo (in living thing), or even more importantly, in populum (in society).
More archetypally, one particular thing depends on a whole scaffolding of other things. Take the excellent case of I, Pencil (which is perhaps a hyper-capitalistic exemplar that argues for hyperspecialization, but lays the case out no less); how much has to go into the production of such a simple and commonplace item.
Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me [the Pencil]. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me.
Something perhaps marvelous to think about: if king Nebuchadnezzar had decreed that his most skilled craftsmen create a #2 pencil… they could not, and if they did, they would doubtless create much waste in the process. Yet, with this #2 pencil not as our chief aim, we have built entire societies, and achieved pencils in the process. This is exactly as JPII said before:
Man cannot give himself to a purely human plan for reality, to an abstract ideal or to a false utopia. As a person, he can give himself to another person or to other persons, and ultimately to God.
Centessimus Annus, 41, Pope John Paul II
We too, build a more prosperous society when we have our fellow man and family intertwined in our labor rather than boxing them off and trying to bookkeep it all. We create overflow affects; our efforts multiply and overflow, creating far more good than we had intended, when we allow these things to interplay well.
Work-life balance, then, isn’t our goal. But rather work-life integration. The return of the craftsman whose shop is both where he earns his pay, helps his neighbor, and teaches his sons. The return of the farmstead, where children play, cattle bray, and families pray. Or, if we cannot have these things exactly, at least letting our new modes of economic existence integrate with the pursuits which give our lives obvious meaning.
Sure, integration can go poorly and we need to be prudent. In engineering, we may perform successful unit tests, yet fail to integrate parts successfully. Yet integration is still necessary at the end of the day, and so we cannot slump from the task because isolation is easy. Integration is what we pine for - it is true life.