Paperclips February 24, 2011

I worked as a therapist specializing in the treatment of survivors of trauma–mainly poor women–for about twenty years.  And I am seven years into a career of similar length, working as a high school English teacher in a small and chronically underfunded high school in the foothills of the Berkshires.

Both of these careers, and my life in religion, evince a certain level of idealism.  I won’t bother to recite the ways that each career has involved hard work and, at times, a degree of selflessness and certainly empathy, because I think most people know that, and I’m not really interested in glamorizing a choice to “make a difference.”  These are the jobs I have felt led to do in the world, and it is a nice thing that they do seem to have been lines of work that have some direct impact on making people’s lives a bit better, at least some of the time.

What I think is less obvious is the way that, like all meaningful work in the world, they involve an awful lot of attention to seemingly trivial, energy-sucking, ordinary real-world details.  Taking notes.  Returning phone calls.  Paying bills.  Organizing filing, grading homework, keeping a seating chart, and making sure to have enough pencils and worksheets on hand each day.

This is what I think of as the paperclips of my life.  And no matter how much meaning and purpose anyone tries to build into their life, they will never really make a difference anywhere unless they are handling paperclips.

I’m thinking about this today because, like many Quakers, I am examining the tension between faith and works.  Now, Quakers, as most people know, set quite a store on being active in the world.  We are told to

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.

We are to let our lives preach, by living out the values (sometimes summed up by Liberal Quakers as Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality, or “SPICE”) we hold.

As a client of mine once said, speaking of her own work against domestic violence in the aftermath of her daughter’s murder, “Whenever I go to a vigil or a protest or anything like that, there they are–those Quaker people.  Who are they?  They’re always there!”

Quakers have a habit of showing up, out of all proportion to our numbers.

On the other hand, Quakers also counsel each other to “test our leadings” and not “outrun our guide,” meaning to wait for Spirit to prompt us into our work.  Perhaps one reason Quakers show up and continue to show up for work in the world against violence or injustice is the care we counsel one another to take to keep our work rooted in Spirit, not in ego.

How many of us have seen the phenomenon of the angry activist, feeling so isolated from a society that can seem indifferent to crying needs in the world that they have gotten into the habit, not of persuading others toward change, but ranting at others about their inability to change?  Who, rather than being fed by their work, are consumed by it, leaving a burned-out shell in place of their-once committed selves? Anger wins few converts, and rage and cynicism are lousy fuel for struggles that can take decades.

This, in part, is the reason Quakers work to keep their witness rooted in the inward stirrings of Spirit.  (In part.  In larger part, this is because the purpose of Quaker activism is faithfulness to Spirit, not effectiveness in changing the world, however deeply we do want the world to change.)

This is the theory, at least.  In reality, there is a constant sense of tension, as some Quakers are drawn more toward outward activism and others, to holding a spiritual center for their communities, through eldering, deep listening (to God and to others) and prayer.  Prayerful Quakers sometimes suspect activist Quakers of becoming secular and cut off from the deep well of Spirit that should water everything we do… and activist Quakers sometimes suspect prayerful Quakers of becoming quietist, or worse, self-indulgent navel-gazers.

Both of those fears are of stereotypes, but there is just enough truth in the stereotypes to fuel tension.  And some individual Friends, and some meetings of Friends, do conform closely enough to one or the other stereotypes to make us all worry, sometimes in a pretty counterproductive way.

I worry a lot… about myself, not about Friends as a whole, so much.  I understand, in theory, that I need to be both active and outward in living out a witness in the world, and that I need to simplify my life and carve out “times of retirement” as the old-time Quakers would have said, to become still, center down, and really listen for that Light to guide me.

I’m not so sure I’m very good at either of those things, but I know I worry more that I am complacent–no, lazy.  Sedentary, a home-body.  Does Spirit need a crow bar to so much as get me out my front door?  Do I refuse to even hear leadings, simply because I’m tired, or it’s cold outside, or I don’t want to get back into the car at the end of a day of work?  I love to go to meeting.  I love to center down, feel the Spirit close to me, like silk on my skin, sunlight on my upturned face… but is that just another form of spiritual sightseeing,  New Age bliss?

“Am I doing enough?” I wonder.

Or is it possible that “Am I doing enough?” is the wrong question?  Should I be asking, “Am I listening?  Am I being faithful?” and releasing the questions about enough and not-enough, lazy or not-lazy, effective or not-effective.

Am I, perhaps, doing just what I am supposed to be doing?  Is it enough (that word again!) to try to teach fifteen year olds something about compassion and listening and a delight in the written word–under the pretense of teaching grammar and vocabulary and Shakespeare–while trying to live a life that is inwardly as well as outwardly consistent with the Spirit of Peace I feel in meeting?

Is my end-of-day, end-of-semester, end-of-school-year exhaustion from grading essays, running off photocopies, not shouting at the provocative teens and listening to the lonely ones perhaps spiritual work after all?

Are my paperclips mere distractions, or are they the shape the Work actually takes in my life?

Quakers set a high bar for action in the world.  I know Quakers who have helped bring clean water to villages in Cambodia and Kenya, who spend many of their weekends in prisons teaching alternatives to violence, teach traumatized survivors of African genocides to become trauma counselors themselves, or who carry a message of forgiveness and compassion in the aftermath of the murders of their own family members.

I know Quakers who are in prisons themselves for their non-violent resistance to torture and war, and who have risked their lives to bring food to hungry people in war zones.  And these are not men and women with trust funds who do this as a hobby, and they are often men and women who must hold down other, paying work (as I do) in addition to their witness in the world.  They, too, must often be tired.  Perhaps they, too, are reluctant to leave their homes behind, get in a car, board a plane, be hot, be cold, be inconvenienced–let alone have cause to be afraid or alone.

One of my Quaker heroes is Eden Grace.  Eden Grace is what, in the old days, would have been called a missionary–and she is fully aware of, and struggles to rise above the the reasons for the negative implications of that word.  Her job is not converting anyone to a religion.  Indeed, her job is one that, were it not for the setting of her work, might be considered to be a fairly prosaic one, in the world of human services: she is a hospital administrator.

She’s a hospital administrator for some chronically underfunded hospitals in Kenya, at the heart of an AIDS crisis.  Which is kind of cool, and definitely takes a kind of courage–just the act of uprooting your family, your husband and your two kids, and flying halfway around the world to live takes that.  But I’m sure the job itself involves all the minutiae–the paperclips–of administrative jobs anywhere.  Checking the books.  Figuring out how to meet payroll.  Anticipating what resources will be needed–staffing, supplies, medicines, and so on.  I suspect that, 90% of the time, Eden’s work is hard to tell from similar work anywhere in the world.  She just happened to have the right set of skills, and the leading, at a time when this program needed her to do this job, and so she is doing it.  That is not why Eden is my hero.

The reason Eden is my hero is because of one story she tells of one day, when she was at work in her office at the hospital.  She was, as it happened, going over payroll, trying to figure out some way to make the limited resources of the hospital stretch enough to meet it, when she happened to glance out of the window.

Now, in Kenya as in much of the developing world, many small things we take for granted are simply not there, by way of infrastructure.  Most Kenyans dispose of their waste, not by sending it to lined landfills, but in trash pits, where they burn their refuse.  This hospital had such a trash pit; waste from the hospital, including medical waste, is burned on premises.

Eden looked out her window and saw the hard-working hospital custodian at work at the trash pit, burning their waste, compacting it and stamping it down where it needed to go.

In his bare feet.

Remember, this is an AIDS hospital.  (Think, needles.  Think, sharps.  Think, HIV.)

And, of course, her heart fell.  Because there he was, the living, human, individual illustration of the equation she had in front of her on a spreadsheet:  as she struggled to find a way to meet payroll at all, there stood a man whose life was literally endangered by her inability to pay him a wage sufficient for him to afford a pair of boots.

She did buy him a pair of boots. That is not, however, the point.

The takeaway for me is something about those goddamn energy-sucking, time-eating, heart-breaking paperclips: the spreadsheets and budgets and photocopies and worksheets of our world.

They matter.  Matter in a life and death kind of a way, actually, even though it never, ever feels like it.

From the outside, a lot of the things Quakers do, from going to prison for non-violent resistance actions, to bringing clean water to a rural village in Cambodia, look dramatic and sweeping and grand.

But up close, I’m willing to bet it’s almost all paperclips, every single day.

And if we are looking to a sense of making a difference in a sweeping and grand kind of a way, for confirmation that we’re Doing It Right, we’re going to blow it.  Because it’s in the details of faithfulness, those everlasting paperclip details of any significant work, that most of what we do really gets accomplished… whether in Kenya, or in small schools in New England.

It doesn’t answer the question, “Am I being faithful?” to notice this.  But it is one important way for me to stay sane.  In any meaningful work in the world,  the second-by-second willingness to attend to prosaic details probably matters as much or more than any grand sense of leading, or of purpose.  Yeah, we need those, too, and we need to listen for them when they come.

But then comes the carrying it out.  In actions that are small, patient, and often tiring.  Focusing on the small is also part of the job; it doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong.
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