Monday, 6 October 2008

Better Gifts

I've been working a lot lately. A lot. Long hours, at three jobs. Just thinking about it would have been enough to make me tired a few years ago. But since then I've spent some time unemployed, and now I look at work very differently. You could even say I enjoy it. Work not only makes me feel productive and useful, it also saves me from my lazy, time-wasting self. It sets parameters in my day. I lie down at night with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

I often remember what my grandfather used to say from his big Lazyboy chair: "You know, the trouble with doing nothing is that you can never stop and take a rest."

So I've been thinking a lot lately about work, and where it came from. I've also been re-reading the Old Testament during my lengthy Skytrain commutes. One day I was making my merry way through Genesis as the Skytrain went skree-ing in and out of stations, when a single paragraph leapt right off the page and punched me in the eye:

"...cursed is the ground for your sake, in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground..." (Genesis 3: 17-19)

One thing that always puzzled me is why God would curse the earth for Adam's sake. It seemed a petty, thing to do; more like the action of a child smashing his Lego castle because someone had bumped one of the towers and knocked it off than like a God full of redeeming grace. I imagined him pouting beneath his snowy beard, or worse - scowling vindictively: "You've really gone and done it now, Adam. I am going to make sure nothing is easy for you from here on out. I'm going to mess up nature so that you'll have to work like a slave just to get food in your belly. How d'ya like them apples, huh? That'll learn you two ingrates!"

I wondered why a God who is Love would punish innocent animals for human disobedience, and afflict the pure world of nature with poisons and pestilence - all to prove a point. It just didn't seem fair, or good, or any of the things that God is. Try as I would, I couldn't get around the conflict in my imagination.

But there in my Skytrain seat, I understood something at last: the earth was cursed not to punish Adam, but for his sake; for his blessing. Perhaps I have learned something from being unemployed. Humans don't become better when we have it easier. We become worse. Fast.

Indeed, the whole Western world stands as a testimony of the destruction too much leisure can bring. Set free from the scourge of leprosy and plague, we die by the thousands of diseases that are the direct result of our selfish lifestyles. The most common ailments among us are not the result of parasites or virus, but depression. We lack not food, nor clean water, but purpose; meaningful work to usurp the tyranny of Self.

I have learned a lot through work with the elderly in different provinces and countries. It has given me a unique glimpse of the other end of life. I have seen the results of lives lived comfortably, full of the best that life can offer. I have seen, too, the results of lives lived scrabbling, full of the search to satisfy Self. But the life which remains beautiful, even at the end, is a life full of work that has been difficult enough and meaningful enough to produce perspective and humility.

God wasn't throwing a temper tantrum; he was being a merciful and careful father when he cursed the earth. I was a fool to judge God's motives by my own. Pride had done in me what it always does, and made me narrow-minded. God destroyed his precious creation in order to protect humanity from its own selfishness. In fact, everything that He did was a means to contain sin; to keep its destructive power from gaining ground too widely or too quickly.

Get leave to work
In this world — 'tis the best you get at all;
For God, in cursing, gives us better gifts
Than men benediction . . .
Get work, get work;
Be sure 'tis better than what you work to get.

- from Aurora Leigh (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)