On the value of work

On our road trip earlier this autumn, H. and I read – aloud – Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford . (It was the first book in this season’s Take and Read.) We both enjoyed it.

Crawford is a philosopher and a mechanic with a Ph.D. who left a job at a think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop. In this book, he reflects on working with one’s hands, on the nature of knowledge, on human agency and self-reliance, on our relationship with material things. Essentially, he wants to rehabilitate manual work, to “give due credit to the cognitive richness of the skilled trades.” He quotes Anaxagoras: “It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.” Crawford’s not about making hand-work “precious” in some craftsy way, though, but about considering the rich ways in which we learn and know, about historical changes in work and what’s valued in work, and about ethical considerations in labouring.

H. is a drywall contractor who knows first-hand the shifts away from “shop class” Crawford is talking about, and the growing difficulty of finding workers in his trade (and the construction trades generally) who are interested in making a solid career of it. (And, says Crawford, a good career can be made of it.) H. also likes motorcycles (a lot) and I’m afraid he completely understood all those chapters about the education of a gearhead and Crawford’s involvement with a clutch road oil seal, which I floated through without comprehension, just taking his word for it!

For my part, I was intrigued by the chapter (“The Contradictions of the Cubicle”) on work shifts within corporations/institutions. The shift here, Crawford says, is one in which managers are “now encouraged to direct [their] attention to the states of minds of workers, and become a sort of therapist.” Office environments have taken up the obligations and mantras of personality — now more important than knowledge. It’s about preparing people for teamwork rather than focusing on specific competencies, and about managing “corporate culture.”

When I returned to the workplace after a couple of decades away, I certainly noticed this shift, though it’s Crawford who gives me words for it. I found emphasis on team spirit, buying into institutional mission, what kind of personality I am and how that relates to personalities around me. How, that is, I was doing as a person (or team player). Less ongoing attention was paid, in an external and formal way in the workplace structures at least, to my competencies as an editor or to the work I was producing.

These statements are not meant to cast that particular workplace (a church institution) in a negative light, but to affirm anecdotally that the shift Crawford documents is everywhere. It’s also fair to note that since reading Crawford’s critique of the ubiquitous new paradigm, I’ve found myself wondering how it’s affected, for good or bad, the ethos of the denomination in which I worked. All of which to say that this is a book worth reading and thinking about further.

“Dusting myself off”

Last evening, the “Take and Read” book discussion group wound up its four-book season with Acedia & me by Kathleen Norris. (See previous post.) Since this book fits the form of spiritual autobiography, our host/leader Paul Doerksen followed suit by being somewhat confessional in his introduction. His extended family has just faced some close calls with death and disease and it’s like “a face-off with my own mortality,” he said. He’s been reading the late David Foster Wallace, and Soren Kierkegaard, one of the writers Norris also references. And, there’s been some sense of personal spiritual malaise. “I read almost hungrily,” he admitted.

It’s significant that Norris differentiates acedia from depression and that she calls it a vice, Doerksen went on, because the cures she proposes depend on it. Acedia is related to bad thoughts, to sin, to “demon” activity, all of them spiritual categories. Since it’s a spiritual condition, it must be resisted on spiritual terms. That, at least, is the thrust of Norris’ book. We must become more aware of what’s going on with us soulishly, get beneath the surface of things, perhaps re-visit early Christian theology, and embrace repetition and routine — whether they be daily tasks or disciplines like prayer.

Although I’m not sure that acedia is more of a problem now than in other eras, I was struck by a couple of relevant examples that came up. One is the search for novelty that has church folks going from one conference or seminar to the next, seeking the latest, newest speaker or trend. Another is the inability to give the right weight to things, exacerbated, as Doerksen put it, because these “perfect vehicles have emerged” in the media to flatten everything, yet overwhelm us with their bids for our attention.

Some of us, me included, had particularly enjoyed the personal narratives of the book. Paul Doerksen felt some ambivalence about the “level of self-referential material,” however, wondering to what extent Norris was “poaching her own life” and how much he was “being played as a reader.” Ambivalence, in fact, may be the best word to sum up the group’s general reaction to the book. A doctor in the group felt that, in spite of Norris’s statements otherwise, her opening descriptors sounded very much like someone dealing with lifelong depression.

As for what we would take away from the book, perhaps the best summary was one participant’s words that it’s about “getting up and dusting myself off.” In other words, falling but getting up again and again and going on.

It being the last of the series, Doerksen wrapped up by noting some of the common threads or themes we’d encountered. The books we read were The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart, Original Sin by Alan Jacobs, and the Norris book.

And the threads? 1. The Bible is a powerful text. 2. Humanity (remember that moving passage by Hart on Peter’s tears?). 3. Sin, original or otherwise. 4. Take monasticism more seriously. 

It sounds as if “Take and Read” will run again next year, for any in the Winnipeg area who may be interested. I know I’ll be watching to see what’s on tap. It’s been good to be stretched, and to read together with others.

P.S. Congratulations to Paul Doerksen, whose book Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christendom Protestant Political Theology in John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan (Wipf & Stock) was launched tonight, at McNally’s.

On Kathleen Norris’ “Acedia & me”

I’ve just finished working my way through Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris. It’s the last book in the “Take and Read” theological book discussion group I’ve been part of this year and is up for conversation tomorrow evening, along with the usual fabulous desserts.

This book has been widely reviewed, so I’ll save myself long explanations, except to say that Norris sets out to rescue the word/concept “acedia” from centuries past, to bring it — along with the wisdom of the monastics which she has come to treasure — into contemporary use and understanding. Acedia is a broad term, even slippery, it seems, but it generally means soul-weariness, indifference, sloth. Over time the “noonday demon” of acedia that plagued the monastics, tempting them to despair over their commitments, turned into a fashionable cultural melancholy. Today it masquerades as “restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair”: essentially the inability to care enough about the right things.

As described throughout her book, acedia often sounds an awful lot like depression, but Norris insists it’s not the same. She acknowledges, however, that the difference will need to be carefully discerned. It seems to me, in fact, that if it’s anything, this is a book about discernment.

“It takes real courage,” [Thomas] Merton insists, “to recognize that we ourselves are the cause of our own unhappiness.” The trick is to maintain a nuanced view as we attempt to discern what trouble we have caused and are responsible for, and what is truly beyond our control. [p.273]

A book about discernment — and about commitment. Norris emphasizes keeping on with what we’ve begun, whether our work or the ins and outs of a marriage, as well as the daily habits of making our beds, doing the dishes, and praying the Psalms. She wants to put spiritual causes and cures back into the experience of “downness,” a surely necessary corrective in our culture. She wants us to “fight back.”

I’m a fan of Kathleen Norris’s poetry and other writing (her books include The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography), so I came to this book with fairly high expectations. I confess I was disappointed. It consists of a great deal of exposition on aspects of acedia and its history, but there are also pieces of Norris’ own story — of her adolescent soul-weariness, of her marriage to David J.Dwyer, of his illness and death, of her grief and widowhood. I found myself relieved whenever these passages of narrative appeared. I hope the reason is not some sloth of my own that wants story over study, but to me the expository parts seemed variously repetitive, confusing, and disjointed — wearing their vast research as collage instead of a journey — and too often (for an author who is a poet) plodding in their execution.

As I plodded along myself, trying to understand the whole business of acedia, which became not clearer but more sweeping and eventually seemed to underlie nearly everything that’s wrong with contemporary life, I kept trying to figure out what was bothering me about what I was reading. I concluded it was a problem of the book’s organization. I wished that instead of making the personal narratives illustrative of the notion of acedia, Norris had simply let her discoveries about acedia serve her own story, tucked in here, tucked in there.

Further, although I found the wisdom of the monastics on acedia compelling, I was not persuaded that their assessments of what tempts and troubles us, and their solutions to the same, were necessarily sound enough to lean into without reservation.

Then again, maybe it was all just a matter of timing. I might have saved the book for a down time, but I had to have it finished for tomorrow. The weather has been so gorgeous these last days, the Easter lilies on the coffee table gorgeous too, the fridge full of Easter leftovers to make this week’s food prep almost effortless, and then there was the music of Haydn transporting my thoughts upward while I dispatched (in breaks from reading) piles of ironing that had accumulated. Acedia? It didn’t seem possible!

Still, I’m glad to have “been assigned” this book. Two poems that Norris includes — “The Higher Arithmetic” by her late husband David Dwyer and  one of her own about barren women, a black cat, and the laundry — seem almost worth the price of it. Norris also awakened my interest in knowing more about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and I certainly needed her reminder about praying the Psalms. I used to practice this quite faithfully but lately it’s been too hit and miss.

To the Benedictine Luke Dysinger, the psalms are “a vision of the whole of creation” and “the training-ground of the Christian contemplative.”…. Every emotion is expressed, as humanity is laid bare before God and everyone…. If acedia is my primary temptation…praying the psalter [is] a tried-and-true means of battling it….

I’ll be interested to hear what our discussion leader and the rest of the group will have to say about Acedia & me tomorrow. I’ll let you know. And I’d be interested in the reactions from those of you who have also read this book.