I’ve been pushing myself along at an insane pace the last month…well, maybe six weeks, ok since May…whatever, don’t question me. I am the kind of person, apparently, who is pretty sure that work will be my salvation.*
I didn’t grow up this way. I grew up in a culture where the rhythms of the day were sane, proper, dare I say, ordered. One of the most rational ways of living in the world is to not have free and unfettered access to electricity and running water.** When night comes, you don’t just flip on a light. Before dusk falls you must rush around and make sure that the lamps are filled with oil or kerosene or whatever it is that keeps them burning. You have to find your shoes before it is pitch dark or you will step on something malign and die painfully. If you a want a bath, you must draw water from your well and carry it into your house and heat a portion of it on the stove and haul that portion across the house to the bathroom and then assemble a bath for yourself that is neither too hot nor too cold. If you are hungry–indeed, before you are hungry–you must peer at the provisions in your tiny fridge that you only acquired by trundling 40 kilometers down a bad road to the town for the vegetables, and into another country for the wedge of cheese, and brutally ending the life of a chicken that then had to be scalded and plucked and pressure cooked so that you would be able to chew it—not preparing too much food because your fridge is very small and you can’t get another gas bottle without journeying a great distance.
When it is night, basically you go to sleep. And when it is day, you work hard to live. If you want to do any kind of what is now called “thought work” you have only a small portion of time to accomplish it before you have to stop to visit your neighbor and after that to worry about the water and the light and whether you have baked any bread. As the darkness closes in, you pour out a small drop of brilliant garnet wine and the Bible makes so much sense because Jesus is all of those things.
Unfortunately, not being the kind of person who thinks deeply about the meaning of existence until some twenty-five years later, you were not mentally and emotionally prepared for the psychological assault of a materially easy life. Coming back to the United States with its hot water and its exhausting lighting, I did not discipline myself to order my life according to those formational rhythms. The lights in the library were on all night, so I settled into a plush comfortable chair, compelled by feverish procrastination–since no thinking ahead is ever required–and stayed up till dawn when I thought I needed to. I did not understand that the external rhythms of a hard physical life bounded apocalyptically by the substantial and objective realities of night and day, of dust and water, of hunger and food, would have to be inwardly nurtured if they were going to be sustaining. Gosh, I didn’t even know they were there.
And because it is hard to take a bath in a third world country, and work is, in some very basic sense, salvific, in that if you don’t work you literally don’t eat, you literally don’t survive one more night into another bright, dusty day, it was very easy to come here and work with the same kind intensity, the same kind of desperation, only without the gracious mercy of night, without ever peering down a cool dark hole to see if there is any water.
I mean, don’t get excited, I went to boarding school. I never worked that hard. I was always lying around in the heat reading a novel. I did no “thought work.” I just watched other people do it.
So, in my middle age, I don’t know how to rest. The lights never have to be turned off. The water flows over my kitchen sink and into the basement because, though I put in the stopper, my handheld device distracts me and I wander away. I am obsessed with articles like this one, which I read two hours ago when I got up early, before dawn, because I could, because the light switch is right there. I read them and think, oh yes! Moar Productivity! This Will Be Great.Then I happened upon this, which is so fantastic. If you do nothing else today, read the whole thing and then read it again. But this is the part that struck me between the eyes because I was trying to say it to someone else—and failing. I am a hypocrite. I don’t live as though this is true. I live with the poverty of resources at the bedrock of my psyche but the overabundance of stuff and opportunity slipping out my actual fingers. I will quote more than I should on faith that you will go read the whole thing.
Ultimately, the only reason to keep living is if you live unto God. If His Word is true, then we were divinely created to glorify Him and enjoy Him always. And our creation was a fundamentally good act — good and prodigal. The only other reasons to live are for the World, the Flesh, or the Devil, and they only want you to live so long as you are useful to them.
Once you stop being productive and your credit dries up so that you can no longer consume, the World does not care if you are alive — unless your existence becomes a drain on those who are still producing and consuming, in which case the World would very politely ask that you cease inconveniencing the rest of us, thank you very much. Once your body primarily experiences pain rather than pleasure, your Flesh has no reason to keep alive. When sex loses its thrill and you’ve come to the end of porn, and entertainment all bores you; when your quality of “life” is diminished by mental illness or physical ailment; when you cease to believe that you’ll ever not be alone, then assisted suicide seems reasonable and moral. And when the Devil no longer finds you useful for undermining goodness, beauty, or truth, he doesn’t care if you live.
Usefulness is the sole criterion for the World, the Flesh, or the Devil. But you have no use value to God. You can’t. There is nothing He needs. You can’t cease being useful to God because you were never useful to begin with. That’s simply not why He created you and why He continues to sustain your being in the world. It was gratuitous, prodigal. He made us just because He loves us and for His own good pleasure. Every other reason to live demands that you remain useful, and one day your use will run out. But not so with God. To God, your existence in His universe is an act of creation, and it remains good as creation even in its fallen state.
I have nothing to add. I am rebuked and my fingers must fall silent. If you need me, I will be lounging my well-lit corner, devouring a wedge of cheese.
*Don’t come to my house expecting it to be clean or anything, or for dinner to arrive on the table at the proper hour. It’s not that I’m working all the time. I totally do sit down, but whenever I am sitting, I feel bad about sitting, which is its own peculiarly miserable kind of work.
** Don’t freak out, I don’t think people having to walk or travel for miles and miles to procure clean water is okay. Of course, everyone should have easy access to clean, potable water, OF COURSE. Having it flow without measure by a mere flick of the wrist? That I’m not so sure about.