Not surprisingly, this Labor Day (9/6 in the US), I spent some time thinking about work. I wasn’t reflecting on the theology of work or labor history or anything academic regarding vocation. Instead, I thought about the last eighteen months in a personal way - how the pandemic has changed everything in my family’s work life.
Since March 2020, all three of us have faced enormous work challenges. My daughter graduated from college and has spent the first year of her professional life working remotely. My husband turned 65 last year and has navigated the approaching end of paid employment and all the financial and social changes that entails. And I’ve had to move almost all my speaking, teaching, and preaching to online platforms as well as adapting my writing projects to new formats. In recent days, most of my September and October in-person engagements have been postponed, canceled, or changed to virtual events. Another COVID autumn.
I’m not happy about it at all. It has been a lot.
We’re only three people, all adults, with decent resources and options. But we’ve had to be endlessly flexible, remain open, and, in some cases, make difficult and risky decisions. For nearly two years, nothing related to our work has been what we expected or hoped for. There’s been no rhythm of seasons, no working alongside others, no firm plans for the future, and no consistency of tasks or community. The lack of stability - the endless not-knowing what’s next - takes a toll.
And the challenges that we’ve all faced have made me empathize with my friends who are working parents whose labors are complicated by online school and keeping their children safe. I’ve felt the deep sting of “we’re all in this together.” Being in it together doesn’t bring comfort. Instead, it reminds me of the magnitude of confusion, grief, pain, and loss we all continue to experience around our work.
It has been easy for me to complain - and feel angry about it all. Really easy. Through it all, I’ve tried to maintain gratitude practices and found that gratefulness does, at least, corral self-pity so despair and rage don’t completely take over. Saying “thank you” on difficult days has helped me to remember that the problems and changes we’ve faced have been fairly manageable in comparison with those of doctors and nurses and therapists and first responders - as well as those who have worked in warehouses and grocery stores and delivery services. We are all doing things that exhaust us, that we never imagined we’d have to do, and we’re making it up as we go along.
The truth is that work was changing before the pandemic. Technology, robotics, and AI were already affecting every profession - even those jobs thought relatively impervious to digital and virtual transformation. COVID only speeded up the process that had already begun. Most of us know that - one day - we will return to in-person work but it won’t be the same as it was before. There will be no going back to what was in its entirety, and what is new will stay with us in some fashion or another, continuing to impact the nature of the work we do in the world.
At the beach last week, I was reminded of the strange paradox of the beach feeling eternal and yet never being the same. We flock to the ocean to ground ourselves - on ground that is always shifting! We relax where the entire environment is in constant flux. In her classic book, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh reflected on this reality:
When you love someone you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity.
We expect that work doesn’t change. We get degrees, become experts, develop skills - often under the illusion that we can “master” a field or a position. And mastery lends stability, permanence, achievement, and recognition. But what if work is, in some ways, more like love? It isn’t something we can control. We are in a relationship with the work that we do. We change, the work changes, and the changed work changes us. Work has ebb and flow. Work is fluid. Like the beach, it only appears solid. Actually, the ground is shifting around us all the time.
Maybe I’ve been upset because I treated my work as something it wasn’t - unchanging. As Lindbergh said, “We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity.”
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman refers to our contemporary condition as “liquid modernity,” where everything “solid” has melted away. He describes “fluidity” as the “leading metaphor for the present stage of modernity”:
Fluids travel easily. They ‘flow,’ ‘spill,’ ‘run out,’ ‘splash,’ ‘pour over,’ ‘leak,’ ‘flood,’ ‘spray,’ ‘drip,’ ‘seep,’ ‘ooze’; unlike solids, they are not easily stopped - they pass around some obstacles, dissolve some others and bore or soak their way through others still. From the meaning with solids they emerge unscathed, while the solids they have met, if they stay solid, are changed - get moist or drenched.
When it comes to work, we need navigators, river guides, rowers, lighthouse keepers, coast guards. We need to learn to read the currents, stay buoyant, and how to float and swim. As I reflect on my work in the last two years, I’ve been least stressed and most successful when I’ve deployed such watery wisdom. My complaining and anger arose from thinking my job was to build a cathedral instead of riding the waves.
We can keep going if we know what the work really is.
Rivers of living water are to be poured out over the whole world, to ensure that people, like fishes caught in a net, can be restored to wholeness.
— Hildegard of Bingen
And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice
— Mary Oliver
And in the end we follow them –
not because we are paid,
not because we might see some advantage,
not because of the things they have accomplished,
not even because of the dreams they dream
but simply because of who they are:
the man, the woman, the leader, the boss,
standing up there when the wave hits the rock,
passing out faith and confidence like life jackets,
knowing the currents, holding the doubts,
imagining the delights and terrors of every landfall;
captain, pirate, and parent by turns,
the bearer of our countless hopes and expectations.
We give them our trust. We give them our effort.
What we ask in return is that they stay true.
— William Ayot
God, give us work till our life shall end, and life till our work is done. Amen.
— New Zealand Prayer Book, He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa
Caretake this moment.
Immerse yourself in its particulars.
Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed.
Quit the evasion.
Stop giving yourself needless trouble.
It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now.
You are not some disinterested bystander. . .
As concerns the art of living, the material is your own life.
No great thing is created suddenly.
There must be time.
Give your best and always be kind.
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
— Langston Hughes
Water is the softest and most yielding substance. Yet nothing is better than water, for overcoming the hard and rigid, because nothing can compete with it.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
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