Monday, June 30, 2008

Toil (Thinking about Entropy)

Genesis 3:17-19 And to Adam he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you,`You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Colossians 1:28-29 Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me.

I've heard it said that God selects the patron Saint at Confirmation whose help you will need the most, even if you don't know it yet. I chose St. Joseph as my patron in honor of my father and my late father-in-law, but I had little cause to think that the patron of workers would be the one I would always need most and call on repeatedly in times of trouble. He has been faithful in giving assistance to me, many times when I had not been nearly so faithful in my own devotion. And I need his help often, because work is always a struggle for me.

When I say work is a struggle for me, I don't mean that I have difficulty doing it. Indeed, my problem tends rather to be the opposite in clinging to a problem with such ferocity that I will suffer burnout and exhaustion long before releasing it. Currently, my frustration level is high because I am on a forced vacation because of a company shutdown; I would rather take my vacation in a more efficient way at a time more sensible for my workload. That's my personality; I'm actually irritated when I don't get the chance to work when I want to work.

But here's my problem. It's not that I like working so much; what I like is getting things done. The exasperating part is that somewhere things are not getting done, and that is why the curse of toil really feels like a curse to me. That's because the curse of work isn't just that you work, but that your work is meaningless and unproductive. Per the theme of this series, things are falling into disorder all around you, and the vast majority of what you do is just maintaining some semblance of structure in the fall into chaos. But the real illusion here is just that you are actually getting anything done, even in those rare instances when you perceive yourself as making progress.

So Ecclesiastes says:
Eccles. 2:18-26 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me; and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest. This also is vanity.

There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Now, I do very much enjoy being with my family, sharing the company of friends, taking food and drink, and benefiting from the fruits of labor, and I firmly believe that these are the sorts of things for which one ought to be working, rather than simply working for the sake of doing so. I have to thank St. Joseph for numerous not-so-subtle reminders to keep me on the straight and narrow in that regard. St. Joseph has a reputation for having a rather literal way of granting requests, even unstated ones. I once read a story of nuns at a convent placing a torn picture of a handyman in front of a statue of St. Joseph in a prayer for someone to perform sorely needed repairs, only to have a handyman show up the next day with one arm missing, the very same one that had been torn from the picture.

My recent reminder for spending too many hours working was one of the worst illnesses I've ever had, a flu-like bug that left me barely able to walk from bed to bathroom for three days. What I've learned from this is that toil itself is a lesson in entropy and our fundamental inability to create except as co-partners with God. It is exactly when our powers fail, when we have nothing left to give and nothing to keep, that we gain the greatest benefits. With my personality, that's a hard lesson, but it's being beaten into me slowly and surely.

I've started weightlifting again for the first time since college, something I had been putting off in favor of "intellectual hypertrophy" (a term appropriated from Bill Vallicella) for many a year. I think I had been resisting that move for exactly the same sense of frustration and exasperation I mentioned above. It just doesn't seem right that you should have to spend TIME just maintaining your body in that way, that it doesn't just fix itself and work perfectly. But that isn't the nature of the world anymore, where one's labor is perfectly purposeful and physical exertion clearly fits into the picture. Instead, exercise works like everything else. It's not those reps where you're throwing up the weight that matter; instead, you're going for that magic point aptly termed "failure." That's the last set, the one where the weight is going up and suddenly your muscles just stop and all of your will and focus and everything else can't get that stupid piece of iron to move one more millimeter. That's the one that makes all the difference.

To reach one last facet of this notion of toil, this entry deals more with my reasons for blogging than anything I've ever written before. Having had occasion to think about this particular theme of work the last several months, what with the forced bedrest and struggling to control the arc of dumbbells that didn't seem so heavy when I first picked them up, I finally figured out what blogging had done for me. See, I started posting on the Internet and later blogging as an attempt to actually do something productive in an attempt to replace the utter lack of purpose I experienced doing legal work. Nothing against corporations or law firms generally for those people who like that sort of thing, but the disconnection from actual human beings left me completely cold and unmotivated toward a career in which I had invested three years and six figures of debt.

Being "on fire" after Confirmation in a way I never had before, I used that energy to study and spread the faith. And this served as a kind of emotional crutch to keep me going when I was sinking into despair. But what I have finally realized, years after the fact, was that this was St. Joseph teaching me another lesson. As much as I felt that blogging was for some purpose, that I was solving some problems or making some things clearer, it was really when I was most incapable of bringing people around to my way of thinking that I was learning the most. So when I was pushing against someone who was completely intractable, not moving them an inch, someone else would benefit completely beside my intention with respect to my dialogue partner. What I wanted to do was to advance the dialogue on a number of points, but I've almost invariably found the dialogue to be in the same place as when I entered it, yet it seemed somehow that I found greater peace in the fact. I think that is probably what the best apologists understand, in that they recognize that they are in some ways simply providing resistance in a kind of passive way, letting God do his work rather than being in the business of compelling belief (Dave Armstrong and Mark Shea in particular seem to be those sorts of guys), but it takes a while to absorb that sensibility.

Having reached something of a plateau that regard, I wonder what I will do. In weightlifting, you switch your exercises around to work new muscle groups in new ways to attain balance in your training. I feel like I am at the point of needing to do something different, since I appear to have been drawn to apologetics, metaphysics, and the science of theology in some sense to learn that they cannot do what I first set out naively to accomplish with them. My sense is that I need to preach even more than teach, but I'm not sure exactly how I will go about doing that. But for the first time in a long time, I feel at peace with both the uncertainty and the freedom, and having learned my lesson to some extent, I believe that I will simply enjoy it. Thus ends the series, and I believe that I will take an indefinite break from blogging while I ponder these things.

5 Comments:

At 9:44 AM, Blogger John Farrell said...

The exasperating part is that somewhere things are not getting done, and that is why the curse of toil really feels like a curse to me. That's because the curse of work isn't just that you work, but that your work is meaningless and unproductive. Per the theme of this series, things are falling into disorder all around you, and the vast majority of what you do is just maintaining some semblance of structure in the fall into chaos.

You don't work in the publishing industry, by any chance, do you? This all sounds just too familiar to me!

 
At 9:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is exactly when our powers fail, when we have nothing left to give and nothing to keep, that we gain the greatest benefits."

How true!


"...and I believe that I will take an indefinite break from blogging while I ponder these things."

This is rather unfortunate; however, I hope you return to blog once again.

By the way, in your absence, you might consider, if possible, providing access to your archives.

God bless and hope you find your way in the midst of the spreading darkness that currently engulfs your life at the moment -- look to Christ, brutha!

e.

 
At 9:48 AM, Blogger John Farrell said...

On a more serious note, you might want to take up Tai Chi. As I'm recovering from shoulder surgery, I've been faced with that right now (since I can't resume weights for another 6 weeks or so at least).

When I was in college, I learned the complete Chi as part of the requirement for my brown belt in Ten Chi Kenpo. I let Tai Chi slide much sooner than the rest of my training over the years since, and right now, I am going back to my notes and my memory, to relearn it.

Just a thought.

 
At 12:02 PM, OpenID arturovasquez said...

I am reminded of Marsilio Ficino's health program for philosophers. He said that philosophers suffered from melancholy due to the adverse influences of the planet Saturn, and that exercise was a good thing in order to counter those influences. Physical exercise was also in the program for the ancient Pythagoreans according to Iamblichus.

It is a fairly cathartic thing: having two hundred pounds of iron a few inches from your face. It sort of drains all of your thoughts and focuses you on one thing. Working-out has almost become another religion for me, and truth be told, I don't do it so much as to see results but rather to get rid of my anxiousness. Afterwards, your mind just feels clean. The bench press does this best for some reason.

If you ever are in the Bay Area and need someone to spot you and chat for a while, hit me up. Are you still planning on going to the Humanae Vitae conference next month?

From my monastic days, I always think of all human endeavors as burning out like incense. Incense seems like such a waste. So much fire for such a meagre practical result seems very counter-intuitive at times. But we burn and we vanish away like smoke, and it is a supreme act of faith to realize that it is all for something. Burnt incense.

In any event, please keep in touch and drop by my corner of the Internet once in a while. You are always welcome.

 
At 10:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So when I was pushing against someone who was completely intractable, not moving them an inch, someone else would benefit completely beside my intention with respect to my dialogue partner.

Ah, Johnathan, if you only knew the half of how your essays and interactions on other blogspots have buttressed my faith!

(Dave Armstrong and Mark Shea in particular seem to be those sorts of guys)

Indeed.

I'll miss your blogging, Johnathan. (Does this also mean that you will not post at other blogspots so much?)

Peter P

 

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