Vocation (Fiction Ethics #4)

Unnecessary grace. Thank you.
(Image by Claudio Schwarz, via Unsplash)

This is the fourth of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

E. F. Schumacher, “Small is Beautiful,” 1973

Ernst Schumacher was an economist whose primary career was in British efforts to rebuild the continent’s economy after World War II. But he did other economic development consulting, including a trip to Burma (now Myanmar) to help them make the transition to independence after sixty years of English colonial rule. While there, he was struck by the implications of Buddhist practice, and thought that rather than imposing Western development upon them, perhaps he could help them develop a locally relevant economics that didn’t assume a standard path of industrial labor.

He became converted to the idea of a humanistic economics, one that placed workers and their communities rather than products at the center of organizational principles. The book that came from this was Small is Beautiful, published in 1973 and immediately recognized as an important corrective to a “rational” (or more accurately, values-neutral) economics. He turned common questions on their heads. Why do we need more wealth? Why should labor be seen as an equivalent to mechanization? “To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal: it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.

But Schumacher was hardly alone in his insistence that Western economics was a force for disaster. Five years before he published Small is Beautiful, we heard these words from a presidential candidate here in the United States:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product—if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Robert F. Kennedy, speech at University of Kansas, 1968

When Nora and I got married some number of years ago, we were both mature adults with fully equipped households. We didn’t need a second Cusinart or a fourth set of dishes or yet another pie plate. So we asked our friends who made things to make us something. We asked our friends who were musicians to sing or to play for us. And we asked everybody else to support an artist or craftsperson they admired.

Our vocations, placed as they are outside of our merely economic sustenance, often result in gifts. We knit or weave, we cook, we sing. We write. And then we give the work to friends and neighbors, not merely as support for their survival, but as a marker of shared values. As another link in the ties that bind.

Look at that terrazzo floor in the image of today’s post. No one will ever know the names of the workers who did that tile work. They are invisible, anonymous. It’s the work itself that has brought hundreds of years of pleasure. It is a moment of grace, in the true sense of that word: an undeserved gift offered freely.

That, to me, feels like the role of the storyteller. We offer our moments of grace to our community, and to those we’ll never know.

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