I’ve been listening to Patricia Wentworth while I clean and twice in an audio book I’ve come across a character remembering her days of religious instruction, and a particular bit of instruction that I know I never got, and perhaps it was an Anglican thing, and an Anglican thing in the early twentieth century.
Apparently the beginning of the answer to “What is my duty to my neighbor” is to “To learn and labor truly to get my living.”
The idea – and the idea in the books that everyone had been taught this, that it was a fundamental, underlying, basic idea everyone that – that this was the duty of every human being TO THE OTHER HUMANS AROUND HIM/HER. “To learn and labor truly to get my living.”
Imagine that you thought that was your basic, underlying duty to humanity, and so did most people around you? Your religious duty. Something you did as you hoped for heaven?
The idea is almost mind-breaking in our current day, when people demonstrate because they can’t find a job despite their degrees in Women’s Studies or Puppetry. (Or at least can’t get a job that pays enough for them to live in the way they hope to become accustomed to.)
Because it is not the duty of society to provide you with a job in something you enjoy and find fun to learn/do. It is your duty to “learn and labor truly to earn your living.”
Another thing that wouldn’t happen would be politicos announcing that they just freed you from the tyranny of work, by either rendering your job very sincerely dead, or by making it possible for you to get all your ills taken care of. Because you’re not supposed to depend on other people unless you truly aren’t able to “learn and labor”.
No wonder people possessed of that idea built and extended a civilization that spawned the world and made daily life far more pleasant, healthier and longer for the average person.
One of the things in those books is that – though the class structure makes me insane – I’ve noticed that every good worker is considered important. So, if you have someone who is making up your fire, but they’re good at it, the girl (usually. Young) receives a sort of respect from those who hired her. She’s doing a good job, and so she is fulfilling what she’s supposed to do.
I think that’s part of what we lost when we lost the idea that learning/adapting/working is our duty. We lost the respect for our fellow men, no matter how menial their labor, who are doing it well enough to support themselves; well enough to remain employed. We lost the boundary between honest labor – and how many feel obliged to snicker at that? – and faking it. We’ve learned to respect people who do a shoddy job, but get to the top through tricks, seduction or misbehavior.
All because we lost the idea that it’s each person’s job to support himself – not society’s, not his friends’, not his parents, not his neighbor’s, but the individual’s himself.
Understand me. I’m not speaking out against charity. I’m not speaking out against giving someone a hand when they need it. And I’m certainly not speaking out against parents helping their children. One of the seeming motivations of being a parent is to try to make our children’s lives better than our own. (Not necessarily easier, but better.) We want them to be able to reach their dreams and get where they want to go.
But it is the children’s duty for each to learn and labor to get their own living. And it is our duty to be compassionate and look after those who can’t. We’ve come a long way since grandma in the ice floe. I’m not advocating going back there. The infirm and the old deserve our care just as we’d hope to get cared for in their situation. Trust me, I know (and if I didn’t I’d have learned it last year) that regardless of how much will power you have, there are physical and mental states in which you can’t perform even that which you’ve learned satisfactorily well enough to get your own living.
But the charity recipient should aim to return to making his own living as soon as possible. The idea of taking charity forever should rankle.
In the same way, if someone labors his entire life, doing very well at a humble job, never getting promoted or going anywhere in particular, but making enough to support himself, he’s performing his basic “duty to his neighbors.” But if he’s out there flipping houses with shoddy repairs, or making money in crooked deals, no matter how big, how important, how rich, he’s not worthy of our respect because he didn’t “labor truly.”
In that one precept is the cure for the lack of “meaning” in modern life. You don’t need to be striving for the pinnacle, and you don’t need to create anything astounding. The only thing you owe your “neighbors” is to do the best you can and not be a burden.
And in that precept is the cure for the illusions of our would-be aristos who think that to whom they were born, their contacts, the colleges they entered by virtue of influence and contacts, make them special. Since it’s less likely they’re learning and laboring TRULY, they’re worthy of less respect than those who attend humbler schools or work manual jobs but give it their all.
In this is the cure for the continuously extended hand and the whine of the would be artist. “I am making good art. People just don’t pay me.” Well, fine, then learn and labor to get your own living and do your art on the side. In this is the cure to the entire inversion where people expect society to provide for them, instead of trying to do their duty.
In this simple precept is pride and dignity. My grandmother used to talk about “the pride of honest work.” I think that’s what she meant. Once you get to night time, and you know you did the best you could, worked hard, and you got enough to keep you another day, you can sleep in peace.
You labored truly.
And you won’t be swayed by the siren call of those who tell you that someone else having more is somehow a crime against you; and you won’t even laugh – because it’s too weird for laughter – when a presidential spokesman says the loss of jobs due to an awful law will “free people to be poets.” I have nothing against poets. Poets who learn and labor and earn their own living can be admirable people. (Even if some are really bad poets.) But no one is entitled to be a poet, or an artist, or a cruise director, or a wedding planner, or for that matter a barista.
You need to earn your living – you need to do it, because otherwise you will be failing your duty to society – and it is on you to learn and labor to do it.
Now I know our job market has got twisted by all sorts of influences, and sometimes you can’t get a job at any price or in any way. If I stop making my living from writing, I’ll be up a creek as the last twenty years have nuked my resume. BUT if you find yourself in that situation, it is your duty to figure out a way to learn something that will allow you to at least try to support yourself. If nothing else, as Jerry Pournelle put it at the beginning of this mess, if you can’t find a job, and you can’t do anything else, make your surroundings really clean. It will give you a purpose, and who knows, maybe you’ll end up with something you can do.
Look – I’m not preaching. I’m the last person to. I’m talking to me as much as to the rest of you, because I’m prone to despondency and to seeing no way out of my predicament.
And sometimes there isn’t a solution. But if in our minds we think it is our duty to find a way; to keep trying to find a way, at the very least we’ll keep at bay the awful despondency that can rob us (me) of months or years when we could have been doing something.
Besides, one thing I’ve learned which is not quite “G-d helps those who help themselves” is that the more irons you have in the fire, the more likely one will get hot. Or as Kevin J. Anderson puts it – in his “popcorn theory of success” – if you put a lot of kernels in oil and turn up the heat under them, some are going to pop – and perhaps a lot will pop.
And if nothing does, at least we did our duty. We tried to fulfil our duty to our neighbor.
To learn and labor truly to get our living.