Monday, January 12, 2009

More on Work

There is a certain arrogance in much of the work that we do. It is an arrogance that we usually praise. The reason being that we often confuse pride with arrogance - or rather we justify our pride as a virtue and wink when it becomes arrogant. Pride is often a motivation - for good or ill. Arrogance is what happens when pride becomes insolent. It’s hard to imagine living in a world without personal pride of some sort.

The quality craftsmanship of the historical trades came from a virtuous work ethic. Our professional world is built on this same foundation. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with taking pride in this. It’s natural. We want to take pride in what we do and we want to patronize those that do the same. We want to contribute individually and we want to be recognized for it.

But pride without restraint very quickly turns sour and before we know it, arrogance and ingratitude prevail. We praise a talented trial attorney for her wit instead of any truth that she defends. We praise an athlete for his skill instead of the trainers and team members that taught him and make that make him successful. We praise a singer for her voice instead of the musician who wrote the music. We praise the musician for his inspiration instead of the source of the inspiration.

Not that these talented people haven’t worked hard to become proficient. They have. And not to suggest that they don’t deserve recognition. They do. But misplaced or poorly emphasized recognition are often sins of selfishness. And selfishness is just arrogance before it happens.

But, it might be argued, to the extent that arrogance is a sin, it would seem to be just a minor one. It hardly ever makes a headline, and for good reason. Everybody knows that it’s ubiquitous. Besides, our progressive world wouldn’t exist without the motivation of pride. Better to enjoy it then to do without. Or so we have come to believe.

The only problem with this attitude is that it is not sustainable. A society that encourages wide-spread arrogance cannot endure. The reason for this is simple. We are mortal. We suffer and we die. Life is not easy, and yet arrogance ignores this. It claims to be self-sustaining. But it never can be. Life is ultimately out of our control. We can recognize this and work within our constraints or ignore them - only to have them return later with interest.

You might agree that this is obvious and that societies never survive anyway. So why worry about it? Again, the answer is simple. Societies may not survive, but cultures can. A cursory view of our Judeo-Christian heritage is more than adequate to show this. Judaism, as a culture, survives today in a society very different than when it began. Christianity, notwithstanding the many changes in its history and its many divisions, retains many cultural elements of the primitive church. One can easily argue that it is because of cultural retention that these traditions survive (in fact it is a tautology which only emphasizes the point) and not in innovation. No wonder that arrogance, that is so manifest in innovation, is not sustainable.

Cultures survive in two primary ways, both evident in the word “culture” itself. The first way is through religion - or the Latin “cultus”. The second way is through farming - or the “cult”ivation of the land. Not all cultures have been strong in both areas. Some cultures have survived with minimally transcendent religions, but not without traditions of farming. Likewise, some cultures have survived without farming, but not without religion.

Importantly, both religion and farming are based on humility. In the case of religion, this is obvious. God is our Father and requires that we submit to His will. Farming, however, is not so different. Growing a crop or raising animals involves the work of a farmer, for sure, but it also requires something more than a farmer. Work a hard as you will (and farmers work hard) and weather or pests may still destroy your crop. Sometimes you can compensate. Sometimes you can’t. It’s better to go along with the old agrarian saying and avoid “putting on airs”.

Farmers have had to be practical people because farming involves responding to unexpected contingencies. You can compliment a farmer by saying he raised a nice crop. But among farmers themselves, well aware that next year might not be the same, different criteria are used to judge a man. For a farmer, wisdom is more important than ephemeral success - wisdom that comes from experience; and experience that comes from the land and that which is higher than the land.

So there is wisdom and life in keeping both religion and farming. Unfortunately, in our arrogance, we are trying to do without both - for the first time in history. How in our right minds can we think that we will succeed? In the end, history is bound to win. Either we keep our culture, or we will cease to exist at all.

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