First, a little music:
Well I’m on the Downeaster Alexa
And I’m cruisin’ through Block Island Sound
I have charted a course to the vineyard
But tonight I am Nantucket bound
We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday
And left this morning from the bell in Gardiner’s Bay
Like all the locals here I’ve had to sell my home
Too proud to leave, I work my fingers to the bone
So I could own my Downeaster Alexa
And I go where the ocean is deep
There are giants out there in the canyons
And a good captain can’t fall asleep
I got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there’s fish out there but where, God only knows
They say these waters aren’t what they used to be
But I’ve got people back on land who count on me
So if you see my Downeaster Alexa
And if you work with the rod and the reel
Tell my wife I am trawling Atlantis
And I still have my hands on the wheel
Now I drive my Downeaster Alexa
More and more miles from shore every year
Since they told me I can’t sell no stripers
And there’s no luck in swordfishing here
I was a Bayman like my father was before
Can’t make a living as a Bayman anymore
There ain’t much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain’t no island left for Islanders like me
Economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote of capitalism as a mechanism of creative destruction. In that phrase he meant to capture the coupled processes of innovation and obsolescence. For in economic terms, it is men who create and destroy; natural processes have nothing to do with either. Moreover, the destruction is a necessary complement to the creation; one could not occur without the other.
But economic destruction – the elimination by innovation of older ways of making a living – is something that happens to men as well as by them. The makers of horse-drawn carriages were men with families and bills to pay. They could not rejoice at the emergence of the automobile. It meant the disappearance of their means of living, which might have been their fathers’ and grandfathers’ as well. They would be compelled to find new means of earning…and for some, that’s a mountain too high to climb.
Men who are younger and more flexible, and who learn more readily, often profess indifference to the suffering of those others. “Their time is over,” goes the refrain. But there may come a time when they will find themselves similarly afflicted. Few of us remain nimble and flexible all our days.
The best time to learn empathy for others is before you need it for yourself.
Not long before I retired, a colleague about my own age named Phil lamented that he could no longer make a living with what he already knew. As software engineers go, he was a rather narrow specialist; his expertise was mostly in applying the powers of Microsoft Office’s various tools, particularly Microsoft Access. But the supply of persons with those skills exceeded the demand for them: i.e., the work to be done with them. Phil found himself compelled to broaden his skill set, which he found difficult.
If it can happen in software, it can happen to anyone. For all I know, had I been stubborn about continuing to ply my particular trade – real-time software – it might have happened to me by now. I haven’t tried to stay in touch with the field.
It will happen. Indeed, it must, for that is the path to a better future for billions of people. But we must not be callous about it. Indifference to the suffering of others isn’t numbered among the capital sins, but it’s no less deadly for that.
A particular Gospel passage is much on my mind just now:
Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.
And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
It sounds a bit cruel, doesn’t it? But Christ did not rebuke Martha for her request; He merely declined to take “that good part” from her sister Mary. And in reflecting upon that passage I found myself wondering: Would He have rebuked Martha had she chosen to join her sister at His feet?
I think that He would not have done so, for Martha would merely have “chosen that good part,” as her sister had done. Yes, it would have meant that He and whoever else was present would go hungry a little longer, but what shall it profit a man to gain a dinner but lose his soul? And no, I’m not being facetious.
Christ did not disparage the work of Martha. As the passage indicates, He sympathized with her in her labors. But His own work, and the infinite benefit it could bring those who chose to listen, was more important.
I have a great fondness for poetry of the sort created by “traditional” poets: i.e., those who respect the medium’s requirements for rhyme and meter. One of my favorites is Rudyard Kipling, whose offerings seem always to be on-target. Yesterday, in commenting on this piece, the worthy Steven Furlong reminded me of one of Kipling’s best. Have a snatch:
Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.
And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd – they know the angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the Feet – they hear the Word – they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and – the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!
Yes, it’s wry, and perhaps even a little bitter…but in the end it’s about all of us, isn’t it? We all spend the greater portion of our days in labor – often brutal, thankless labor. By doing so, we hope to earn not just our daily bread, but also an interval of peace in which we might make sense of things. The evening’s rest; the weekend’s release; the hoped-for interval before life ends in which we’ll have time to complete the longest thoughts and the labors animated by love alone.
And here we return to the tragedy of the first segment: not all of us get those respites. These days, they seem the province of a dwindling few.
Do not disparage nor dismiss any of the Sons of Martha. You may know their lot, and their sorrows, in your turn.