lenten journal: by the numbers


    I spent some time this morning reading Life Work by Donald Hall.

    It’s not a new book to me. When I was finishing up at Winchester and preparing to move to the South Shore, my friend Jack loaned me his copy. Donald Hall was a poet who lived in and around Boston; his love for the Red Sox was as passionate as his love for words. The bookmark I keep in the copy I bought after I gave Jack’s back to him is a ticket stub from a Sox-Mariners game on Sunday, May 4, 2004. I sat in Section 27, Box 67, Row D, Seat 1. Hall was paying attention to Spring Training in the chapter I was reading today, much as I am, with the Sox just days away from opening an new season and, with it, new hope. Hall writes:

    Absorbedness is the paradise of work, but what is its provenance or etiology? Surely it is an ecstasy of transport, of loss of ego; but it is also something less transcendent: To work is to please the powerful masters who are parents – who are family, who are church, who are custom or culture. Not to work is to violate the contract or to disobey the injunction and to displease the dispensers of supper and love, of praise’s reward. Not working becomes conviction of unworthiness. We prove ourselves worthy by the numbers of work . . .

    As I like to say: I average four books a year – counting revised editions of old books; counting everything I can damned well count. Counting books, book reviews, notes, poems, and essays, I reckon I publish about one item a week, year-in, year-out. Were I fifteen years old, this would be the moment when I would pretend to blow on the backs of my fingernails, then rub them on my shirt.

    Work, work, work.

    The numbers make a difference to me, somehow. At the end of the night, I can tell you how many burgers I cooked, how many onions we sliced for onion rings. I can also tell you my journal will be over 31,000 words after I finish today’s post. When I open my blog each morning, my first move is to click my statistics counter to see how many hits I got the day before. At least I am learning how to check it only once a day. In some way, each one of the numbers reflects some aspect of my effort, and they also have nothing to do with what I have done. If I cook forty burgers on an evening it’s because I got forty orders, not because I somehow worked harder. Whether one hundred or three hundred people come to the web site, I’m still writing a thousand words a day. Yet, Hall is right: we do prove ourselves worthy of the numbers.

    Worthy. That’s a haunting word to me.

    Worthy: having value; being suitable; desirable; meriting respect or esteem.

    That takes numbers, if not to prove to other people, to prove it to myself. Five years of cobbling together a resume that includes line cook, security guard, and pastor – as well as extended segments of life where I existed as Unemployed Depressed Guy – and it takes some serious spin to make the numbers work, to make me feel like I’m pleasing the “dispensers of supper and love,” to make me feel productive.

    When we first moved to Charlestown, I went looking for a job to help pay the bills. I ended up as Assistant Manager at the Blockbuster Video down the hill from our apartment. The pay wasn’t great, but we got free movies and there was always popcorn. I had fun roaming the store trying to suggest lesser-known movies to widen people’s perspective to more than the new release wall. Thanks to me, more people in Charlestown saw The Year of Living Dangerously and Eyewitness than would otherwise have done so. One night, I asked a woman if she was finding what she wanted.

    “Oh!” she said with some surprise. “I don’t usually talk to the help in places like this.”

    I went back behind the counter in an identity crisis. Growing up in a minister’s home meant not being taught much of a distinction between who you were and what you did, at least in our house. Was I the guy who handed out copies of Terminator 2, or was that just what I did? Did renting videos justify my place on the planet? Since when was I “the help”?

    I learned to make a distinction. I was a person who happened to be trying to pay some of the bills by working in a video store. That wasn’t all of me. The lesson was a good one to learn and a hard one. If someone like me, who internalized early on that love was earned, figures out that what I do and who I am are not the same thing, how do I earn love? What do I have to do (be? – even the verb is an issue) to feel worthy?

    Here’s one of the ways I have tried to respond:

    Daily Work

    In the crush of afternoon traffic I am one
    Of an unending queue of cars, staring at the stoplight.
    From my driver’s seat I can see the billboard:
    “Come visit the New Planetarium You Insignificant
    Speck in the Universe.”

    When the signal changes, I cross the bridge
    Over the railroad yard, then left past the donut shop,
    And park the car in front of my house.
    Only my schnauzers notice because
    They are home alone.

    I have been hard at work in my daily orbit,
    But I stopped no wars, saved no lives, and I forgot
    To pick up the dry cleaning. Today
    Would be a good day to be Jimmy Stewart,
    For some angel to show me I matter.

    As I walk the puppies down to the river,
    I wonder how many times have I come to the water
    Hoping to hear, “You are My Beloved Child.”
    Instead, I stand in life’s rising current only to admit,
    “I am not The One You Were Looking For.”

    I stand in the stream of my existence between
    The banks of Blessing and Despair, convinced that
    Only Messiahs matter, only heroes are worthy,
    That I have been called to change the world
    And I have not done my job.

    Yet, if I stack up the details of my life like stones
    For an altar, I see I am One In the Line of Humanity,
    A Drop in the River of Love; I am a Speck
    In God’s eyes, of Some Significance.
    So say the schnauzers every time I come home.

    It’s one of those questions I keep asking.



    1. Wonderful words of life here..worthiness..this spoke to me as I grow more comfortable in my ‘work identity’ as ‘minister’. Easier for me because I’m coming at it ass-backwards; it’s what I have always done, instinctively. Processing the distinctions of the label has been interesting.

      The numbers thing, in a broader context, is fascinating; our little church has morphed into a big church. We are a mere three years old, homeless yet, seeing between 500-600 people in each Sunday service. I always look for the head count Sunday afternoon…and wonder at the satisifaction (or lack thereof) I feel at the numerical value. Do the high numbers prove our worthiness? Validate our message? Honor Jesus?

      Thanks for giving me more to consider…God bless the schnauzers…
      be blessed..

    2. That’s great–from an “insignificant speck in the universe” to a “Speck in God’s eyes, of Some Significance.” Be assured, you (and all of us) truly matter! Although, when I wore contacts, I wouldn’t have liked the speck in the eye metaphor so well…LOL.

    3. I struggled with feelings of worthiness and numbers too. In my mother’s eyes, you were a waste of space if you weren’t trying to climb the ladder to a higher place (usually corporate ladder but any ladder would work).

      She couldn’t comprehend that we didn’t want to work 50+ hr weeks at jobs we hated just to get the numbers up (annual salary, savings in the bank, 401K, bigger house, newer cars).

      We have been quite happy being lower-middle class citizens who aren’t striving to escape. And while most of the time I know I matter, occassionally it only takes a comment from her to make me question my worthiness all over again.

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