Day Laborers by Steve Houston.
The riots in Baltimore are about race, equality, and economics, but ultimately, the problem goes deeper than civil or social reform. There is a crisis of hope, and the human person can only truly flourish in the context of hope. While civil and social reform aim at the protection of human dignity, such dignity can only exist in the context of personhood.
In a previous post, it was discussed how personhood is a relational structure. These posts will explore personhood in the context of hope and human vocation. Ultimately, we are not called simply to work, but to work in the context of hope. Hope is a relationship which contextualizes our civil, economic, and social existence.
It is not a rational word that a man utters when he weeps, though he may weep for a rational reason. In the same manner, when we hear someone cry out in rage or pain, we are mistaken if we label him as entirely irrational. Even in the case of murder, which is not a reasonable act, we still look for motive–for meaning. What is the motive behind the Baltimore riots?
A riot is the language of the unheard.
Martin Luther King Jr.–from an Interview with Mike Wallace
The Baltimore riots were precipitated, much like those in Ferguson, by the death of an unarmed black man. This is not unusual. Riots have frequently erupted after racially-characterized violence. However, the media has insisted that there is more to the chaos in Baltimore than race (cf. footnotes). Baltimore, they say, is not only about police violence or racial inequality, but is the outcome of long standing conditions of poverty and unemployment.
The media is only partly correct. Financial stability and employment, of themselves, cannot create social harmony. One missing element is hope. Of course, the existence and operation of such an element is not truly an object of secular consideration. Still, a human being never truly exists as a ‘secular’ being. Indeed, this last fact is at the heart of the riots and at the heart of all dissatisfaction and discontent
The riots are expressive, not only of social unrest, but of despair. One attacks another when one is angry; one destroys one’s own when something is more fundamentally awry. Certainly there are victims and attackers here, but we would misread these events to see them as wholly other oriented. The riots bare the marks of self-harm, of wounds inflicted upon and perpetrated by the self.
What is the cause of this distress? Cultural, economic, and social conditions alongside human depravity have combined to dehumanized and depersonalized communities and individuals. Ultimately, what is at stake is our understanding and promotion of the person and those social conditions in which personhood can flourish. This crisis can be characterized as a crisis of hope which undermines the concept of the human vocation.
Work is Future Oriented
A factory laborer punches the clock in hope of a future pay check. She tightens bolts in light of the function they will perform. A doctor diagnosis and prescribes in consideration of future health. A teacher works not so much for a single lesson of a day, but for the student who he hopes may develop over time. The carpenter aims at building a house by performing tasks over the course of many days and months.
Both the task of a job and the remuneration it offers are promises held largely by the future. Therefore, whoever works must look toward the future. This connection to future helps establish a personal connection to one’s work. The factory worker does not merely turn a wrench, but turns it with purpose; the Dr. looks forward to the health of her patients; the teacher awaits future awakenings and developments; the carpenter imagines the aesthetic and domestic fruit of her labor. Even the wage each earns is counted toward a hoped for future.
Without the future, work loses meaning, the worker loses motivation, and the person is harmed, for those future connections are connections which bind the person to other persons and even to the self. Just as hope is a certain kind of disposition toward the future; the future is a necessary condition for hope to exist. To demand work outside the context of hope is to demand the performance of something which is truly impersonal and thus dehumanizing.
How does hope disappear?
If work is future oriented, we can consider in what way the future may currently be undermined or made obscure.
Low income alone does not deprive an individual of the future. There is still possibility: the hope of staving off hunger; protecting and serving one’s loved ones; of forging connections; of furthering plans for the next generation. Work in the face of low-income can still be contextualized by personhood. Such a life may be difficult and demanding; it is certainly not ideal, but the imagination of one in poverty is not forbidden from such hope.
However, certain conditions can create a climate in which the very individual becomes impoverished, in which he or she is alienated from the future:
Long-term Debt: Systemic and life-long debt abstracts wages in such a manner that one’s own labor is oriented away from individuals toward an impersonal entity. One’s earnings do not promise anything concrete in the future, but merely serve to maintain the present. Such an individual runs a marathon with a continually receding finish-line.
Lack of Economic or Social Mobility: Along with debt, work without the promise of change or improvement burdens the individual with an image of future life as mere monotony. The future is no different from the now, and thus it ceases to exists in the context of hope.
Social Isolation: Structures which withdraw the individual from isolation include family, friends, hobbies, service, religion. Such structures have been coerced, undermined, and dismantled in numerous ways. The family is more and more a civil and legal entity, rather than a personal structure; if one has little time for life outside of work, family and friendships are hard to develop and maintain (the internet cannot fully replace human interaction); an overworked individual has little energy to pursue meaningful hobbies; service and religion which would bring individuals face to face is coerced or relegated to a separate arena and so holds less meaning and does little to structure one’s personhood.
Abstracted Labor: A state in which the worker is removed from the product of one’s work. The worker is encouraged to be increasingly isolated from the fruits of one’s labor. One merely turns a wrench without an eye to the whole or the product. One’s labor could be performed indifferently by any other individual, and one does not experience how one’s work effects and serves others. A self does not emerge through such work.
Mere Survival: Finally, under such conditions, the individual ceases to be a social being who comes to know others and the self through relationship (personhood); instead, he or she sees the self as a replaceable laborer. Labor becomes not something one does, but who one is, if one wishes to exist. One exists to put bread on a table. Whose table? Isolated and undetermined by relationships, one’s very existence ceases to have purpose; bread itself begins to lose meaning.
Man does not Live by Bread Alone
To understand the crisis of hope, it may be helpful to unpack the meaning of the above statement. Of all its implications, one is that the full meaning of human life cannot be realized in mere survival.
Bread is a necessary condition for human life, without which one cannot exist, but bread is not a sufficient condition for happiness. We all have a sense of this. Anyone who has ever found life bitter, difficult, unfulfilling, cold, burdensome, boring, or absurd knows this much. What we ultimately long for is purpose and meaning, a sense that we belong and contribute. We desire to know and to be known, to love and be loved. We all share this human calling (vocation).
Remarkably, built within this vocation to love and be loved is a curious act of discovery. Unlike the acorn who knows its business is to grow into an oak, human beings first have to discover or hear a vocational calling. Thus, our species specific calling can only be realized in the context of learning, and our learning must occur in the context of one another–in community. We can only discover our calling in a personal context.
This open secret, this primary calling of self-discovery in the context of the other, is prior to and has priority over any career. It is our vocation to personhood which provides a structure of hope, without which life loses meaning and we are reduced to buying, selling, and consuming bread.
The calling to love and be loved is prior to any particular job, industry, or lifestyle which one might pursue, even if the development of our primary calling can only occur, partly, in the context of labor. Our contemporary socio-economic context rejects, or at best ignores this primacy. Rather, the climate of today suggests that it is bread which shall satisfy men.
Part II and III of this series will explore how it is that work differs from vocation, why economic improvement will always fall short, what kind of food ultimately does satisfy, and how work can also become contextualized in the present and not simply the future.
The Wheelbarrow by Steve Houston
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