Saturday, May 4, 2013

Contracting Out Life

Living requires a great deal of work. That much has at least been agreed upon if not since prehistoric times when the caveman first realized he had to purge his cave of vermin and smoky entrails, then since Hesiod said that whatever be your lot, work is best for you. If that much may be agreed, then, we may also affirm that man seeks to avoid work. This is not news, of course, for it has as long been the nature of man to seek respite from life's relentless toil. The industrial revolution gave modern man a new way to avoid work: efficiency. It seems to me, though, he did not succumb to this temptation, at least not always or broadly, but rather redoubled his efforts and produced the spectacular abundance of the modern world.

He achieved this by means of a two-edged sword: specialization. We've talked before about the extraordinary benefits of specializing at your craft and trading your service or wares. Clearly the practice produces goods and services of increased quality at lower cost. This applies to everything from art and artistic craft to services like those of doctors and grocers. Now I'm not going to backpedal from these facts and suggest every man learn toss in the towel at work and retreat to a patch of land for farming. Instead, I would like to observe the sword slicing the other way.

Namely, that the more one pursues greater specialization at one task, the more one seems to forego others. One may of course pursue specialization for the sake of efficiency and productivity so he can make more money or work less, but one may hyper-specialize even for the goal of excellence. No one condemns the doctor for spending his spare time improving his craft, especially when one's employed his service. Likewise no one would blame Mozart or Shakespeare for devoting all waking hours to their arts. It is an awkward and even disappointing realization, then, that most geniuses have developed their one shining skill at the expense of their other abilities.

Man's life, however, is varied. He must learn to feed himself and get himself from place to place, to write and speak well, to care for and protect his family and property. These should not be viewed as burdens to be shunted off at the soonest possibility for there is unique pleasure in fulfilling them yourself. There is no dishonor in treating oneself to the expertise of a first rate chef, but there is joy in watching something one has grown oneself crisp in the pot, whether it is meat from livestock he has raised or basil grown in his window box. Likewise there is no shame in paying a teacher to instruct one's child in specialized learning, but who would not want to teach one's son or daughter to read?

This may sound a strange or cruel, that I wish man to suffer unnecessary toil, and there is of course an element of displeasure in work, that of exertion, but happiness is an activity and how else will one take joy in these things if one does not do them himself? You may experience ease when someone completes them for you, but not joy. Separating man from his intimate needs and cares is to separate him from his self and nature, and what has separated man from his health as food's transformation from nature's fickle bounty culled by his own hands and refined by his own skill, to processed commodity. What has separated him from his social nature as the law's ebb from res publicae of the common man to esoteric knowledge of lawyers. What has separated man from tradition as knowledge's shift from familial and social trust to pedagogical ware. Overall, what has denied man from the edifying, character-forming, and instructive use of his diverse faculties than contracting out ever more of life's work?

It is not so much, though, that we should strive to do everything possible by ourselves all of the time, but that we should let life's intimate moments remain intimate. We should have significant personal connections to the work of family life, of cooking for and cleaning up after ourselves, of teaching our children life's essentials, and living peacefully with our neighbors. We should seek, wherever possible, to learn about the tools we use and to understand the work done for us by machines and professionals.  Such activity not only offers insight into the needs and costs of life, but unique joys in both failure and fulfillment. To contract out activity, that is, life, eagerly and at any and every turn, is a sign not of progress or efficiency, but of dullness and decadence.

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