In the Fall 2013 Issue of Comment magazine, James K.A. Smith tells the story of a beautiful vision of work.
In 2009, US Supreme Court Justice David Souter retired to his New Hampshire home. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, on behalf of the court, “We understand your desire to trade white marble for White Mountains, and to return to your land of ‘easy wind and downy flake,’” citing a Robert Frost Poem.
Justice Souter responded with a quote from a Robert Frost poem of his own: “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Souter wrote that Frost set out “the ideal of a life engaged,” when he wrote work should be “where love and need are one.” The finest moments of Souter’s professional life were described by this unity of love and need, work and passion.
In the context of the simple task of splitting wood, Frost wrote about his vision more fully:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sake.
For Frost, and for Justice Souter, when work and play are united, we are most useful God, to society, and to those who would come after us.
As I speak with an increasing amount of people in Denver about their work, occasionally I am lost in somebody’s description of their craft. And it seems they’re lost in it too – so engaged with the task they almost emit a fluffy, self-forgetful delight.
My neighbor Jodi is an artist. She painted a picture for our home of our oldest daughter near a river with balloons, inspired by the quote by Jean Pierre de Caussade, “The soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responding to every movement of grace like a floating balloon.” As she was doing the last touches in our living room, her eyes, her hand and her canvas almost became one. She was “out of time” – for that moment, her work and her delight were one.
Broadly speaking, Americans don’t like their jobs. Over 70% of America’s workforce is either passively disengaged or actively disengaged from their work. It seems to me that if we’re going to chip away and this soul-emptying number, we need to collectively pay attention to the times when we notice our love and need becoming one. As Fredrick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
If you feel that delight, share that experience with somebody. Here is where “the deed is done / For Heaven and the future’s sake.” Here’s where manual laborers, teachers, nurses, business leaders, and even Supreme Court Justices come alive.
Photo: Splitting Wood