Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tough Jobs and the Joyful Futlity of Work without "Value"

Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money.  By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market.  The time will come when they will sell you even your rain.  At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. 

Thomas Merton, from “The Rain and the Rhinoceros.”

A few weeks ago I saw a 60 Minutes re-run that was new to me.  The final segment was the beautiful story of a symphony orchestra in Kinshasa, in the Congo.  It is the only orchestra in the Congo, the only orchestra in the world with all black members, the result of a project started by an airplane pilot whose business went bust.  But there’s no business angle in the musicians’ passion for Beethoven.  The orchestra does not get paid.  Many work in the markets trying to make what little income they can.  Many have children.  A few are children or young adults anyway.  Two brothers who are vocalists live ten miles from where rehearsals are held six days a week.  They travel ninety minutes each way, mostly walking.  Asked when they started with the orchestra, they give the exact date, November 8th.   It is ingrained in their memory because, as they say, “it’s like a birth for us in this symphony orchestra.” 
One of my first thoughts as I watched video of these boys’ daily “commute” (what would amount to an intense hike for me) was, “how can they do this without getting paid?”  It was a question both of motivation and of sustainability.  Why would they do it, and how can they spend this significant time and energy on something that doesn’t make them money? A professional musician from Germany who was inspired, after watching a 2011 documentary about the orchestra, to travel with a few others to Kinshasa to help with their training came into the story echoing my own thoughts:  “It is difficult to relate,” She says, “people from our country wouldn’t do this.”  An NPR writer reports, “They tackle difficult pieces… out of sheer love.”

I realized that my questions belie the internal, often unrecognized paradigm that’s developed from living in a profit-driven culture.  I have been thinking lately of the pre-eminence, the god-like quality that Economy holds in our country and in the global west; perhaps most everywhere. Crimes against the earth are excused as sacrifices to Economy: the ravaging scars of extraction and war.  Crimes against humanity too: jobs that degrade the body and spirit, disregard for those who “don’t contribute” to or who “drain” the system.  Work and living things of all kinds attributed worth in direct relation to their monetary potential.

What is left in our lives that we do “out of sheer love?”  I don’t mean hobbies and entertainment that we work into our “free time” (another monetary designation?).  And I don’t mean those fortunate few who get paid to do work that brings them joy and fulfillment.  I mean, what do we ever choose to dedicate days, weeks, lives to for sheer love?

Around the same time that I saw that 60 Minutes piece, I saw a youtube video that was circulating on Facebook.  It was of a fake ad circulated by Mullen advertising agency in Boston.  The job position was called “Director of Operations.”  As applicants interviewed they were given a list of responsibilities and expectations: “constantly on your feet…constantly exerting yourself,” “no breaks,” “you can have lunch but only after your client has eaten,” “requires excellent negotiation and interpersonal skills,” “sometimes you have to stay up all night,” “no vacation.”  The applicants were uniformly appalled, “that’s almost cruel,” one said, “all encompassing,” complained another, “inhumane!”  And finally, when the interviewer clarified, “The position is going to pay absolutely nothing,” the response was, “No one would do that!”  And here the interviewer plays his trump, “What if I told you there was someone who already works in this position?”  The interviewees shock transforms to a mix of laughter and tears as the interviewer says who that person(s) is, “Moms.”

It may very well be true that Motherhood is, as the title of the fake-ad asserts, “The World’s Toughest Job.”  But more amazing than the fact that women (and I don’t want to ignore Father’s and other significant care-givers and partners, but this is Mother’s Day folks) do dedicate their lives to this “job,” and very few bother to stop and estimate how much money it’s worth or what title it would have in the working world.  Motherhood is one of the last vestiges of work that is deemed intrinsically valuable in the global West.  Perhaps some people don’t feel that it is really respected, but that hasn’t stopped moms from mothering.  No doubt there are economist studying its worth in terms of contributing to national wealth, but I don’t know any moms who’ve felt the need to consult those studies before deeming mothering their children to be a worthwhile endeavor.  My sister aptly called it, “life without weekends.”  Why would we do it?  Because, as a friend and fellow-mother commented, we are “forever in love,” with these lives that took shape in us and continue to be shaped by us.  It is something that we do for sheer love and it gives me hope.