This weekend I finished up a new-to-me book, “Better Off” by Eric Brende. It’s a great story about technology, and what we might enjoy in life without quite so much of it, so it suits a functional Luddite like myself, and I highly recommend reading it if you enjoy a great, factual, honest story set in pastoral realms. (I kind of want to go move into the little community, and just live for awhile… and I’m not all that fond of being outside, so that’s saying something right there.)
One very interesting concept Brende articulates is that of labor being a lubricant to social situations. From chapter three, as the Brendes are settling into the new community and starting to get to know some of the very varied personalities of their neighbors:
The Joneses were canning beans when we arrived, so there was little we could do but watch—not enough room to assist. But we could also chat, and we did discover their reasons for living this way were purely doctrinal… Nate, it turned out, was fond of quoting passages from Scripture that seemed to support (his practices)… But after gingerly disentangling ourselves from these issues, soon we found ourselves talking and laughing again. Maybe we had discovered another side to the coin of free-given assistance: since the purpose of getting together was not social, there was no pressure to “like” or “be liked.” Just as conviviality had taken up the onus of the work, the work took up the onus of the conviviality. The habit soon became a tradition. Manual labor was both the occasion of the parties and the substance that got us mixing and conversing. Physical work, then, served more than one function. Besides putting bread on the table and vigor into the physique, it also provided a special social elixer.
I’ve seen this work over and over in my own life: it’s far easier to strike up a conversation and enjoy time with people far different from myself, if we have work to do. I don’t need to worry or think about our differences, because the work is the focus. I don’t have to be new-best-friends-forever. I just have to be polite, and pleasant, and get some work done.Working alongside someone, particularly someone very different from myself, gives me the chance to get over my preconceptions, to find a bit of congenial common ground, and maybe begin to appreciate some of the things that might have annoyed or frustrated me before we worked together. Work is the secret social strategy of the Church Lady.
If it is true that we learn to love whom we serve, perhaps it is also true that we learn to love those with whom we serve.
Community work is often lost in our modern, separated, individualistic society. We’re all supposed to Go It Alone, Be Unique, Do It Ourselves. The very things that make life easier (email, phones, cars, gadgets) can also make it easier to over-crowd with commitments, and lessons, and places to go… worthwhile things, but very individualized, and in the shuffle, we can start to feel a little isolated, a little too alone. Working together, even with people we don’t particularly know, creates a unique sense of purpose and connection.
For those same reasons, I find it important to work as a family, and to make more opportunities to work as a household, with other households. Even if I can’t work out all the kinks in my relationships, I can at least sweat alongside someone, and find common purpose and worth in our mutual abilities and effort. I can appreciate the silliness of a youthful companion, or the sober reflection of someone much older than myself (or, quite unexpectedly, find myself having to switch up those descriptors… age is not a prerequisite for reflection!) Focusing on the work, rather than our “issues”, helps us glide through a bit more easily, and hopefully gets us on a track of reconciliation and respect.There are even deep conversations to be had while weeding, or stacking wood, or quilting, or packing donations destined for still other households, or any other laborious project that needs doing.
Gee, it’s almost like Someone engineered our experience here, full of work to do, in such a way that we can be enriched by the most mundane of necessary things. Go figure. Strip away the modern gadgetry, get into a work project with others, and see what that effort liberates inside you.