I have a short (true) story, “De Profundis: Our Past is Prologue”, in the upcoming new issue of The Mockingbird, the literary magazine of the Mockingbird ministry. Issue 4 (Winter 2015) celebrates and reflects on the human world of “work and play”, and it seemed good to me to do likewise for a couple of posts.
In the late spring into early summer of my 21st year I worked as a brickmason’s helper. It was the ninth job I had worked since my High School graduation; the fifth one in construction, not counting the five months I worked on the assembly line of a motor home factory. It was the last job I had before I finally decided to go to college. My friend Steve got me the job. He was an apprentice mason and put in a good word for me with the contractor he worked for. The work was simple: Stack brick and block, shovel mortar, fetch tools. Every once in a while one of the master masons would let me lay a block or two. Work to exhaustion. Go home, drink a few cold beers, eat supper, shower, get up the next morning and do it all again. Wait for the weekend. But for the surpassing physical effort required (I ended up being in the best physical shape I had ever been, or ever would be), it was not all that different from other construction jobs I had; different tools and material maybe, but the same goal of changing an empty piece of earth into an enclosed environment for human use and comfort. A useful occupation.
I liked construction work because I could see immediately the tangible results of my efforts. I gained satisfaction from my labor. I laid that foundation (well, I helped), I raised that framed wall, I put that roof on. There was something basic and even primal about construction. By my hands I altered the material world; I brought into being something that had not been, at least not in the way it had been before. When I finally went to college, I eventually switched majors from studio art (another way I enjoyed altering the material world) to Industrial Arts, and I became a woodworking teacher, instructing middle school students in poiesis—the act of making something new with tools, technique, and imagination. A useful occupation. And, for awhile, satisfying and rewarding. But we live in a fallen world and there is always an element of futility to all that we do, especially in the world of work. The sameness and the same frustrations over and over made the job routine; an honorable way to make a living, but not a path to meaning or happiness.
Eventually I left teaching woodworking to go to seminary and eventually I took those skills back into the classroom, this time in a Christian high school as a Biblical Studies teacher. It was a different sort of poiesis. I was charged with making / molding students into biblically astute disciples of Jesus Christ. The results were seldom immediately tangible, but I have received enough feedback about light bulbs going off in heads and lives altered to know that I did some good. A useful occupation. But eventually I left in frustration; not frustration with students, but with the rather byzantine bureaucracy that is overlaid on top of and alongside the basic relationship of teacher and student.
So I think I understand Solomon’s ambivalent statements about toil and anxiety and satisfaction and pain and enjoyment. Sometimes it seems by our efforts we have moved the world, and at other times as though we are helplessly sliding back and back. At times I look at what my hands have made from the materials and tools at hand, and I have a sense of participating with God as a craftsman in a world of beauty and possibility. And at other times I feel like Sisyphus pointlessly pushing a stone up a hill all day only to have it crash back down as evening ends my day’s labors. We cannot grasp from our work more than it can give. A brief sense of fulfillment, satisfaction in a job well done, knowing things are at least temporarily better by our toil; this we can have, as we work out our days in a fallen world and wait for the renewal of all things in the kingdom of God.