humanity and work

as long as there are humans on the earth the law of entropy will not be the only law at work. a part of being human is being tasked with the solemn work of pushing back the chaos and carving out spaces of order, of beauty, of flourishing. we make straight lines of natural curves – we make the rumpled surface of the earth to fall in orderly rectangles we can live in. at its most fundamental level that is what work is. this is more readily visible in some kinds of work as opposed to others but it applies to the man taking calls in an information center just as aptly as the farmer tilling her fields and sowing her seeds.

work is a place where so many threads of our humanness converge, making it impossible to move the one without vibrating the others. work so often incorporates our bodies.  loggers, miners, and farmers sweat and their muscles turn to ropy straps beneath their skin as they carry their loads. work taxes and calls our rationality into use. it is always a question of bringing the resources of our minds to bear on a given problem to some fruitful end. work is so often a social activity, drawing communities together. it is a creative endeavor as we bring things into the world that were not in it formerly. it teaches us our own limitations and finitude as what we make requires constant upkeep and often calls out of us more than we have to give. in this work itself becomes a means of humanization. the more threads of our humanity that are drawn together in our work the more human we become.

it is impossible to not come into contact with the world when we do almost any sort of work. here a farmer bends his back in the sun. his hands are soiled in a way that he doesn’t think of as dirty, though they are covered in dirt. the sun is hot but it makes him happy because though it makes him sweat it is how his plants, and thereby how the man himself, lives. he is tied into the rhythms of the earth as only farmers are. the wind and the rain. the clouds. the rhythms of the season and the range of work that it calls forth from him. his life is tuned into to the cycles of the earth.

the contact with the natural world is easy to see in the case of the farmer but is no less present in the case of the factory worker. these women stand side by side and under their eyes pass by reorganizations of the matter of the world in the form of shoes. they stand under an aluminum roof and under the light of fluorescent gases becoming excited in vacuum-sealed glass tubes. they breath air. even in a factory, which has become the archetype for work disconnected from the earth, we find the earth in abundance. there is a dignity in that.  it is as true of a farmer with his hands in the dirt as it is with women standing on an assembly line passing their hands over shoes and breathing the chemical fragrances of patented leather.

i do not mean to paint the picture that all work is equal. it is not. just because work is the work of restoration, of pushing back chaos, doesn’t mean that it itself is not subject to that chaos. our work is subject to all the brokenness that everything on earth is subject to. the work of restoring the world must itself be restored. for every form that brokenness takes there is a form of that injustice incarnated in some kind of work. in that, even work, a piece of what it means to be human, can become dehumanizing.

miners in africa search in the mud for diamonds. the presence of diamonds within the borders of their country has drawn people who would exploit that wealth. and it is not only the mineral wealth of african countries that have been exploited, but the human wealth as well. injustice has become systematized as wealth is taken out of a country and exported elsewhere. poverty forces people to take jobs on the lowest chain of development, for instance, that of miners for the very mineral wealth that is a part of their own oppression. his work takes place in a system that has worked to erode his dignity, and thereby his humanity.

a worker crouches huddled in a dirty blanket in the space between two streets. on either side cars pass by in a blur. he is waiting for one of them to stop and pick him up for work. sometimes work comes and some days he goes home to his family having only sat all day with his shovel next to him. those who see him know who he is and what he is waiting for but do not pay him mind except to notice perhaps that he was there on their drive to work and he was still there on their drive home. he waits surrounded by the crush of traffic and bodies but he is isolated. his work makes him into an anonymous set of hands. when he does get work no one knows his name. his work has taken it from him.

machines, though they can vastly increase what we can produce, often require of humans an opportunity cost in their humanness. work fosters humanity most when the worker and the object of their work have a connection. machines can sever that connected. a farmer whose hands put seeds into the soil he has maintained and kept for a generation and then looks after those seeds through their transformation into the crops. when he pulls the fruit from the plants he has invested a part of himself in those plants – and gets part of himself restored to him in return. machines, in contrast, have the effect of incorporating humans into themselves in a way that reduces them instead of raising them up. the boot maker laboring at a machine huffing noisily beside him also puts a part of himself into his work – we cannot help but invest ourselves – but he in turn becomes only a part of the machine and it does not give his humanity back to him pressed together and strengthened because in the process he has alienated himself. though his hands made those boots they do not bear his mark. though he is an individual, they are not products of an individual. though he has a name, no one will find it out. he has skills, but they are machine skills, the kind of skills that he could pass onto the next generation in a weeks apprenticeship, not a decade. simply in doing his work he has replaced himself. this is dehumanization.

at the center of human work lies a question: will it increase order or create chaos? will it promote human flourishing or dehumanization. though work can be a curse on this cursed world, it is also its best hope. hopkins expresses it so eloquently:

generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

all is seared with trade: bleared, smeared with toil;

and bears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil

is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

and for all this, nature is never spent;

there lives the dearest freshness deep down things…”

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