Blessed be the invisible hand of the market
that prodded the opening of a dozen eateries
over the course of just a year: trusty old supply
meeting fresh demand like a May-December affair.
Blessed be the shopkeepers and their workers
fielding orders feverishly with no proper workflow
to speak of, just the beautiful mess of paying attention.
Blessed be the elderly couple selling diced turnip and
papaya, retirement far from their minds; and the
peanut vendor glad to be overwhelmed in the
noontime sun by a small mob, with their one-word
conversations of “Sweet,” “Salty,” and “Spicy.”
Blessed be the narrow, wet sidewalk made narrower
by all this pop-up commerce, and blessed the
city administrators—maybe customers themselves—
who have not yet thought to demolish the whole thing.
Blessed be the regularized woman on the way to
remitting cash back home; blessed especially the old
beggar and his special child, patient in their spot and
grateful with every gift; and the workmates jostling
and jesting, passing up the mall not only for something
cheaper and healthier but also to be nourished
by an unsanitized view of the different walks of life.
When I pause to consider all the great award-winning movies, all those glowing recommendations from friends or Netflix, and all those copies that I in fact hoarded in my hard drive but never have the time to watch, I realize it’s still about the now-proverbial modern-day fear of missing out. In the vastness of our world and in the expanse of recorded history, what if I never get to hear the most remarkable and most important of stories? What if I never come across the books that would have made the biggest impact on me?
I realize this is an existential and maybe even theological question. Because if there is such an entity as an all-knowing, sentient Goodness, then one thing we need not fear is that the best stories go untold. Instead we can expect that the best story will not only be told but also retold and memorialized. And who knows, in a twist that answers our deepest hunger for meaning, we may even be playing a part in it.
When you fill up forms these days, there is usually a field for “occupation.” But if you reach far enough in your memory to grade school, you will remember another word–livelihood–that seems to evoke a more rural meaning (as in “The chief means of livelihood among early Filipinos were fishing and farming”). Occupation sounds more urbane. Cooler. But when you consider their root words, guess which one implies the idea of thriving and flourishing, and which one implies merely something to fill time with, to keep one’s hands busy until retirement?
I love the following lines from Nancy Nordenson on livelihood:
“Far from my high school daydreams about the future, I am on a search for daily meaning as well as for daily bread, for living rather than dying. I want to cast my net on the side of astonishment…. I want to find God at work in me and through me. I want livelihood.
Livelihood: the word gathers up and bundles together the simultaneous longings for meaning, satisfaction, and provision. In the fullest sense of the word, livelihood means the way of one’s life; it means the sustenance to make that way possible; it means both body and soul are fully alive thanks to what has been earned or received by grace. On one level we make our livelihood; on another level we keep our eyes open and find it. –Nancy J. Nordenson
It is easy to deplore market capitalism and “modern city life” and the many ways they depersonalize people, but most of us who are well-to-do enough to bother about this concern actually live in the thick of them. (Or maybe it’s just that the other less urban voices are not as loud.) We have indoor plumbing, electricity, and grocery stores; we take for granted such conveniences as taxis, toothbrushes, and Internet connection; and we choose jobs based on what we believe are the best that employers can offer. And often the employers, incidentally, are multinationals.
Our condition refuses easy dismissal. We have to pay more attention to this than just the occasional comment about idealism as being something for the young.
We may decry the obsession over the next best thing in gadgets and technology, but that is simply an effect of the all-too-familiar drive, year on year, to make products and services better, faster, more efficient in the companies where you and I work. As Norman Lear stated, “Maximizing shareholder value is the central disease of our time.” And even if your job is not in a multinational, it’s likely that the fruit of your labor is still part of this whole system.
In what ways should we engage in our culture? Just how should ordinary folks like us “cultivate the talents entrusted to them” while being “in the world but not of it”? How do we “render unto Cesar” without forgetting to “consider the lilies”? There must be some way to have better balance. Or to at least get a better perspective.
“In a world where significance and identity are earned by what we do, by what we have accomplished, by what we own, by what we earn, and where Christmas is about the lines we fought, the lists we finished, the gifts we were able to secure, the kingdom of God arrives scandalously, jarringly–even offensively–into our captive and content lives. In this kingdom, a person’s value begins before she had said or done the right things, before he had accumulated the right lifestyle, or even made the right lists. In this kingdom, God not only uses children in the story of salvation, not only calls us to embrace the kingdom as little children, but so the very God of creation steps into the world as a child.”–Jill Carattini
When you come to think of it, time itself is something that somewhat causes you to have multiple personalities.
Every few years (and then every few decades as you get older), you become a different person physically at least, if not psychologically, although legally you remain yourself.
With all the ways in which your thinking, feeling, willing, and relating have varied over different stages, which version of yourself is the real one? Which particular photo, for instance, best portrays the you that you want to be most remembered–your high school or college graduation photo, the shot of your wedding day, the picture of you carrying your first child or grandchild?
If there is not something or someone that is unchanging upon which all reality stands, we will all be strangers to ourselves, doomed with incoherence.
Words are keys. There is satisfaction in opening a gate by using the right key, in discovering that feelings have labels, and terms have meanings. Someone has a way with words, we say casually, often missing the metaphor: that to go through everyday life is to navigate in a jungle of things and ideas, and that the reason we are fond of people who use words well is that they help us find our own path.
But there are times when it feels like language limits us even as it liberates us. (Look up, for instance, the intriguing theory of linguistic relativity, brought to the limelight recently by the movie Arrival. Essentially it says that the structure of a language influences if not determines how we perceive or experience the world, the most well-known, or controversial, example being that the tenseless Hopi Indian language reflects how the Hopi have a different conception of time than that of modern people.) So there are limitations of a specific language and how we use it, and not only because of the presence or absence of a word in a certain language. “To grasp the meaning of the world of today, we use a language created to express the world of yesterday. The life of the past seems to us nearer our true natures, but only for the reason that it is nearer our language,” says Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “Language attempts to catch reality in a net,” writes Henry Christ, “but reality won’t be caught. No matter how one labels things or persons, they exist regardless.”
Words are currency. It’s as if the moment we are born, we are thrown into a marketplace where we could not buy or sell anything unless we had the right type of money. We learn early that if we want food, favor, or friendship, we pay for it with exclamations, gestures, and, most efficiently, words. You wouldn’t know what a person is like unless you spend time talking to him in a variety of contexts. But when language becomes too much a function of economics, it starts to restrict. Human language is a double-edged sword that limits and liberates, often at the same time.
It’s interesting to imagine how we could ever think without words. How would you? The Miracle Worker, a movie about how Annie Sullivan tutored Helen Keller, makes you pay close attention to the nature of language. Anger, awe, control, hope, and attachment, it turns out, are not at all foreign to a nine-year-old child who tragically could not see, hear, or speak, and who is unwilling to let anyone get through her. But how glorious it was for her to finally come to realize that there is a name for those emotions, the same way it finally occurred to her that the cold, flowing, colorless substance gushing out from the tap to encompass her hand is called water. Helen Keller was born a human being, but it seemed she didn’t become fully human until the moment she grasped language. And she didn’t stop with water or cake or key; she went on to become an honored advocate and a source of inspiration to many others.
So there’s probably more to the idea of words being currency in the marketplace called the world. The evolutionist says that we learn language simply because we need it: your mother feeds you if you cry a certain way; nanny changes your diapers if you cry another way; you’re a good boy or good girl if you say the “magic word”; people buy your product if you hire good marketers. But something compels us to go further. If we believe language is a gift, we are also drawn to believe that it exists because there are deeper needs than survival, getting what we want, or propagating our genes. A child may have been so deprived she looks malnourished for life, but that would not stop her from becoming a writer who talks about transcendence.
When we don’t use language in strictly economical ways, language, fallible as it is, can be a great means for fulfillment and flourishing. And as can be seen in the stories of people we know who overcome various kinds of obstacles, it is possible that there is a different, future world where infinitely better fulfillment is available, where language does not restrict but only liberates, where it is perfect aside from being useful. After all, according to Peter Edman, “the deepest things about us are in what we cannot directly express, what comes through in the spaces between the words.”
The linguist Edward Sapir once suggested that maybe language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove. If so, perhaps it means that our deepest need may not be so much for mere shelter from the elements as for transport and transformation, that somehow we were not supposed to stay in this place forever. Or at least that this place will not always be what it is.
Maybe, as in Helen Keller’s life, the purpose of language is not so much utility as revelation. Maybe we were not born into a marketplace after all, but into the wrong side of the Garden.