In This Issue
Notes: Is There a Job Title for What I Do? · In Other Words: The Blackfoot Confederacy and Me · News: Because the World Needs a Poem about Shoveling · Postscript: 1980s Nuclear Apocalypse Movies Should Finally Spur Us to Ban Nuclear Weapons
Is There a Job Title for What I Do?
The Rule of St. Benedict challenges us to rethink the way we value the work of our days.
“So, what do you do?” he asked, amiably.
The guy doing the asking was a semi-retired accountant; the two of us were waiting for a meeting to start, making small talk. It used to be I could answer this question without much difficulty; I could trot out a neat little job title, something like “reporter,” “textbook editor,” “house of hospitality volunteer,” “stay-at-home dad and freelance writer.” Nowadays, I tend to fumble around for a neat answer, wondering to myself: What is it, actually, that I do now?
Despite LinkedIn’s ad campaign suggesting that we liberate ourselves from constraining job titles, the truth is, people like a proper job title. It confers legitimacy, you know; it says that, at a minimum, you spend your days paying your way. Even if your work doesn’t contribute to the common good in some obvious way (e.g., you’re a cook, a teacher, a plumber), at least you’re not freeloading.
And while I do “work for pay,” a lot of what I do doesn’t fall into that category, nor is it neatly summed up with a single title.
Take Tuesday, for example.
The formal work agenda for Tuesday included getting this newsletter out (late); continuing work on the Catholic Worker website reboot; and chasing down some editing work.
In reality? Here’s a rundown:
- Answering email and Slack messages about the Afghan refugees we’re helping.
- Making sure our sick 12-year-old son was joining his virtual classes on time.
- Prepping our daughter for her meeting with a high school counselor mid-morning.
- Spending an hour and a half in customer service purgatory while people from the Specialty Pharmacy That Shall Not Be Named valiantly tried beating their order fulfillment system into submission.
- Meeting with Mike from the City of Winona out in front of our house to strategize about our handicapped parking signs, which the students of Winona State University have been ignoring.
- Comforting a sick, throwing-up child, dispensing medicine to said child, and cleaning up a bathroom mess.
- Helping a stranger jumpstart his car, which had died across the street from our house.
- Calling a lonely friend who has been stranded in a nursing home for six months.
Somewhere in there, I managed to get this newsletter out the door and some additional work done. Now, I’ll admit that Tuesday was a bit more chopped up than usual, but it’s not that far off the mark from a typical “workday” around here. My daily work is usually scattered across a half-dozen different tasks. Most of them are not “content creation,” but “helping” tasks.
And what job title is broad enough to encompass all that?
It’s easy to view this nonpaying work that comes to me throughout the day as interruptions to my “real” work—that is, my paying work. But is monetary compensation the only metric for assessing the value of work? What about valuing work by whether it contributes to the common good?
The Rule of St. Benedict, which has served as the basis for Christian monastic life for about 1,400 years, offers another measure. The Rule says: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35)” (RB 53:1). Indeed, guests are to be welcomed “by a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body” (RB 53:6).
And it also says: “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else” (RB 72:7).
The Rule gives me another way to view these interruptions to my daily work. To the extent that they call me to perform the Works of Mercy or contribute to the common good, maybe it’s the other way around: maybe the “interruptions” are the real work. Maybe I am being called to the door throughout the day by a series of “guests”—the underpaid customer service workers at the pharmacy, the city worker at my door, the sick child, the lonely invalid, the guy with the stalled car.
Maybe. It’s a partial answer, at least. On the other hand, the Rule of St. Benedict was written for a community, and the Rule strives for order in the service of the good of the community. In the context of a larger community, the manual work and the Works of Mercy would both get done because the labor could be divided.
A household isn’t a monastery; even more, in modern western culture, households are autonomous economic units, not really part of any extended community. Consequently, the good of the household also involves “manual work” to pay for groceries, maintenance, and other expenses.
How do we balance our manual work with the work of hospitality and generosity? Is there a job title broad enough to accommodate both? I don’t have the answer, but I wonder whether St. Benedict, if he were here to advise us, wouldn’t suggest that the beginnings of an answer might be found in the ancient model of intentional community.
IN OTHER WORDS
The Blackfoot Confederacy and Me
Growing up, my mother told us that our great-grandmother (or was it a great-great grandmother?) on our father’s side was a full-blooded member of the Blackfoot Confederation, native Americans who once roamed the plains of Alberta, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, and who now live on reservations in Montana (just outside Glacier National Park) and Alberta. According to her, this ancestor tried stopping a train by standing on the tracks and was killed in the attempt. Her idea, according to this story, was that if the railroad could be stopped, the buffalo would come back.
Whether that story is historical fact or family legend, I don’t know, but it has always made me curious about the Blackfoot people—the Niitsitapi or Siksikaitsitapi, as they call themselves. So when my oldest daughter decided to research them for an American history class project, I decided to pick up a couple of the books she was using.
The History of the Blackfeet and the Blackfoot Confederacyv is an accessible fifty-page history of the Blackfoot Confederacy written in the style of an encyclopedia entry. That’s okay, because the unadorned history is breathtaking enough without stylistic embellishments. The people probably migrated from the Great Lakes region relatively recently, displacing or merging with the indigenous people who had occupied the area for thousands of years, as evidenced by the massive deposits of buffalo bones at the base of cliffs in the area. Before the introduction of horses sometime in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, the people would work cooperatively to drive the buffalo off these cliffs, providing their main source of sustenance. Although they engaged in nearly constant skirmishes with neighboring nations, the focus of these raids was less on killing and more on stealing horses and other goods and kidnapping women and children; mortality rates were relatively low.
This way of life was completely changed by contact with white Europeans, of course; within three generations, the native population had been nearly wiped out by smallpox, the buffalo were gone, and a series of treaties had relegated the remaining Blackfeet to live on ever-shrinking reservations, where they were supposed to live on annuities and farming. In one of the more grimly amusing scenes in this series of cataclysms, the first government delivery of flour, coffee, and alcohol is met with confusion on the part of the Blackfeet, who traded away the coffee and amused themselves by throwing the flour into the air. Over the winter of 1883-1884, nearly a quarter of the population starved to death.
Why recall this tragic history? Because an “examination of conscience” and confession is just as good for us as a society as it is for us as individuals. Done right, it can be the beginning of healing and repairing broken relationships.
The other book my daughter used is Blackfoot Lodge Tails, by the famous anthropologist George Bird Grinnell. I’m just starting that, and looking forward to diving into the folklore of these people.
Because the World Needs a Poem about Shoveling
One of my most popular poems on Medium is If the Blackbird Can Sing in the Dead of Winter, which surprises me—there’s no apparent rhyme or reason to what people will pick up on. Anyway, I recently finished another poem about winter, this one inspired by the communal ritual of shoveling out after a big snowstorm. Between air conditioning and electronic diversions, you hardly see people outside anymore, so it’s particularly poignant when all of us neighbors come out of our houses to work on shoveling out the alley and the sidewalks together. A good solid snowstorm is exactly the type of “natural disaster” we need these days—not all that disruptive, but just enough of an inconvenience to get everyone outside working together for the common good. (Not that I am inviting one of our rare May snowstorms; this winter has dragged on into spring long enough already, thank you.)
I’m submitting the poem around, which means it won’t be available here until it’s published elsewhere or I’ve exhausted my options; publications are very strict about submitting material unpublished anywhere. If all goes to plan, I’ll be able to share it before next winter’s first good snowstorm.
1980s Nuclear Apocalypse Movies Should Finally Spur Us to Ban Nuclear Weapons
Remember those nuclear apocalypse TV movies from the 1980s? A partial list includes Threads, Testament, and The Day After, which remains to this day the most-watched television movie in history, with 100 million people tuning in. (And don’t forget the theater releases The Miracle Mile and War Games, to name a few.) Whatever you think of the quality of the actual films, they remain an example of the importance of art in helping us imagine the sort of future we want to chart for ourselves—and the sort of future we want to avoid.
While popular culture may have spurred the adoption of nuclear arms treaties, they didn’t succeed in overcoming the logic of “mutually assured destruction,” which is why we now find ourselves wondering whether a single man with a tenuous grip on reality and a fantastic ego might just unleash a nuclear apocalypse on the world for real.
If we actually manage to avoid that scenario in the escalating conflict between Russia and the West, our next move ought to be to push for universal adoption and enforcement of the U.N. treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Whatever the practical difficulties enforcement might pose, it’s beyond crazy to continue allowing a single nation to hold the entire world at gunpoint.
A starting point might be attending “A World Without Nuclear Weapons: The Humanitarian and Moral Imperative,” an online event on Sunday, May 15. The event features Dr. Ira Helfand, a member of the steering committee of the International Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, who recently issued a pastoral letter, “Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament.”
You can register for the free event here: tinyurl.com/396zh7wp. If you can’t make it for the live broadcast, a recording will be available. Thanks to my friend Barbara Allaire for helping to organize the event and passing along the information to me. And thanks to Pope Francis for clearly articulating what ought to be obvious: “The possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral.”
Stay warm, stay well…