15 April 2012

Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence...not the Economy

"God instructs the heart not by means of ideas, but by pains and contradictions."
-Caussade, Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence

 In today's economy, it is difficult to escape the fact that the world is weary for work. Amidst all the struggles and pains of survival, I think it can also be said that the world is weary of work, and all that modern attitudes have attached to it. While this sounds like a mighty counter-intuitive attitude to contemplate in the midst of a job search, I am convinced that it is more important than ever to confront myself about the relationship I have with my work, and I wish others would be more eager to do the same.

It goes without saying that the current economy is challenging, especially for academic library jobs. Everyone is fighting for all he can get, despite all the pains it may require. I have been very fortunate and privileged to have had substantive library experience throughout the course of my education, but I still entertain minor terrors from day to day about what the future holds, worried that, like Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, I perhaps might also lose everything and be bound by [metaphorical] prison walls instead of leading a simple and happy life. (Such uncertainty makes very good opportunity to practice self-abandonment.)

I have worked hard through my long student life, but have been careful to not become consumed by my responsibilities, especially in recent years. Anyone who has known me long enough can tell you that growing up I practiced nearly total self-abandonment to my schoolwork and activities. There wasn't a class or honor that I wouldn't pursue. Fueled by youthful passions to conquer mediocrity and passivity, I studied and worked tirelessly, convinced that this was the formula for freedom. Inevitably, this would lead to extreme forms of self-denial (usually sleep) that I would rationalize away as necessary sacrifices for my future security. It was incredible how dispensable I could make myself, and I took great pride in this, taking it to be a sign of endurance. I gradually amended my habits, particularly after reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and realizing, with disgust, that I had more often that not functioned as the spitting image of Dagny Taggart, seeing my value in what I could produce.

A few good friends and a couple incredible little books* have helped me to embrace a new kind of diligence and temperance about work. It is an attitude that sees man primarily as a human being, rather than a cog in a machine, engaged in his work for the sake of holiness rather than success. Such an attitude is the epitome of the counter-cultural, and takes a great deal of fortitude and persistence to put into practice, but is worth its weight in gold. I find myself happier and healthier, and while I still struggle with the vice of envy, it has become easier to detach myself from professional achievements that I would otherwise pridefully desire for myself alone.

It is easy to panic about finding any job, let alone a library job, in today's economy. Beggars can't be choosers, and our first defense against falling into abject poverty usually is to engage ourselves in as many tasks as possible to maximize our qualifications. It is no crime to be ambitious, but I often worry about some of my colleagues, many of which have three, even four jobs to juggle while finishing their degree. It is certainly no easy task for one to support oneself as a graduate student in library school, and the desire to develop a broad range of skills and competencies is laudable. But what may begin as a push to survive can easily become an undue attachment to work that suffocates our human nature.

Recently there's been a burst of discussion in the media about the role of stay-at-home mothers, sparked by controversial remarks amidst the GOP primary race. While I won't comment specifically on that issue here, what is telling about the modern debate is how much we have culturally assimilated our professional life into our personal identity. Women who sacrifice their 'professional' careers to care for and educate their children full-time tend to suffer a lot of grief for their decision, because they choose to forsake something that is now seen as essential for personal growth and fulfillment (apart from the often very real economic considerations). It is important to remember that 'what we do' should not be mistaken for 'who we are,' or as the total path to human freedom. Jennifer Fulwiler has recently written a great post about this: Men's Real Vocations are Not Their Careers. Librarianship isn't exactly the type of career that seems prone to developing all-consuming professional personas, but because advocacy can be a significant part of our careers, it can be tempting to, e.g., become slave to pleasing whoever is funding the next project grant.

Above all, keeping work at our service, rather than the other way around, ensures that we abide in humility. As Sertillanges notes in The Intellectual Life: "...to accept our limitations is a part of virtue and gives us great dignity." This humility is instrumental to the self-abandonment that Caussade describes. A difficult job search is the perfect instrument for this, making me acutely aware that all I have is a gift, that all potential employers may indeed see me as nothing, and that despite the intensity of my efforts and desires, I may end up in a place I never expect to go. And keeping work in its proper place will also help us avoid something more serious than material poverty:

"The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice-all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world."
-Pope Benedcit XVI

*The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges--The Soul of the Apostolate, Jean-Baptiste Chautard--Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper

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