Working with the dead
Posted on April 14, 2015
is broken by the thousand
calling voices it is always too late
to answer, and that is why it yearns
for some hard task, lifelong, longer
than life, to concentrate it
and to make it whole.
(Wendell Berry, “This Day”, 1987: I)
In ‘Without weapon or tool‘, I wrote about ‘calling’ and ‘purpose’ as the two factors that define our distinctive ‘work’. Instead of being consumed with our role and the activities that describe it (the ‘thousand calling voices’), we can connect deeply with our work as something distinctively personal and purposeful.
There is a downside to this: our culture constantly pushes any personal thing to an individualist expression. This becomes all about MY calling, MY work, MY purpose in life. Sure, it’s better to be clear about your ‘work’ rather than your ‘career’, but there is something missing. The missing factor is our communion with those who have died, who have also shared in the work. Wendell Berry’s poem punches home 3 truths: work that satisfies as a calling is hard, it is longer than our life, and these combine to make life whole. I want to look at the ‘longer than life’ bit.
Calling contains a paradox: the work to which we are called is longer than our life yet that very fact makes our work whole. This paradox only rings true if (1) a human person is fundamentally and inescapably part of other people and (2) our work is such that it can be shared across time with those people who are now dead.
Is a person inescapably part of other people? This is the question that really grinds against the individualist culture of most Westerners. I would answer with a little ‘no’ and a big ‘yes’. No, I am a unique person, with a mind and soul and body that cannot be matched to any other. Yes, without others I would be literally nothing – there would be no ‘I’. Every dimension of my life is not just affected by, but bound to, others: what I eat, my thoughts, my feelings, my choice of job, spouse, home, whether to have children, what friends I am drawn to, and so on. It is common, when we think about these connections with others, to imagine living people. The farmer who grows the food that sustains us, the spouse that sleeps beside us. But dead people are people too.
Calling contains a paradox: the work to which we are called is longer than our life yet that very fact makes our work whole.
Can work be shared across time with others who have died? If we see our work as (say) ‘building a house’ then no, it cannot be shared across time. The house is completed and that is that (unless the builder unexpectedly dies). But if the builder sees their work as the good use of strength, materials and tools (rather than the product of a house), then yes, that work can be shared with those who have died. Good use of strength, materials and tools is work that has been attempted by many builders over centuries, never perfectly but always sincerely.
Another example is that of parenting. One of my ‘works’ is the good parenting of Shane. I cannot complete this work myself because my parenting is itself shaped by the parenting I received, and my parents by their parents, and so on back through the generations who have died yet share in the parenting of Shane.
Work that is worth anything recognises the communion we have with ‘the departed’ who did our work. That is why teachers revere past teachers, religious people the saints, gardeners the ‘heirloom’ seeds passed down over decades. We see in their work the contours of our own. •