What impressed you as Shane found what he was up against and settled to it was the easy way the power in him poured smoothly into each stroke. The man and the axe seemed to be partners in the work. The blade would sink into the parallel grooves almost as if it knew itself what to do and the chips from between would come out in firm and thin little blocks.
[My father] picked a root on the opposite side from Shane. He was not angry the way he usually was when he confronted one of those roots. There was a kind of serene and contented look on his face. Shaefer, Jack. Shane. (pp. 25-26). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.When the boy's mother, Marian, comes to see what they are doing, she is surprised because initially her husband intended to take the day off and rest. Not sure what to make of the behemoth task her husband and Shane are attempting, Marian says:
'Humph... [t]his is a funny kind of resting you're doing today.'
The boy's father puts the axe on the ground, leans on the handle, and responds, 'Maybe it seems funny... [b]ut this is the best resting I've had for about as long as I can remember.'Of the entire passage, I find these sentences to be the most interesting. Shaefer is working with a paradox here- not only illustrating the physical strain required to accomplish their task, but suggesting one can simultaneously feel "rested" within and during the task.
Obviously, work is how many turn the hot light off and the cool light on. Yet, why does some work provide meaning while other work offers only boredom or dread? Similarly, how was the narrator's father in Shane able to feel "rest" while actually doing a grueling task? Is any of this related to what Jordan experienced as an athlete that he seemingly hasn't found as an executive? I think a possible answer to all these questions can be found within the work of Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has spent decades studying the phenomenon of FLOW which he describes as a sort of hypnosis where all sense of self, time, and place drift away and only a singular focus on the task at hand remains. For Flow to occur, some fundamental components have to be in place. For one, a person's skill has to be in proportion to the difficulty of the task being performed, and as one's skill increases, so must the challenge. According to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow can be achieved within a wide variety of activities- athletes, musicians, artists, even a mother piecing together a puzzle with her child can all experience it. Within each scenario though, there are always 3 common denominators:
- A clearly defined goal as well as agreed upon rules and boundaries that dictate the terms of how this goal can be accomplished.
- Freedom for decision making and creativity within these set rules and boundaries.
- Immediate feedback for the incremental steps made toward achieving the goal and recognition when the defined goal has been accomplished.
The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.” Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (p. 133). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
As we think about the idea of work, we should look at a peculiar scene in David Lean’s WWII epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Colonel Nicholson and his men are held as prisoners of war by the Japanese army and ordered to build the bridge stated in the film's title. Initially, the men are not taking their work seriously and are even trying to undermine their enemy’s command.
Nicholson realizes this and orders them to stop thwarting the effort and begin taking pride in their work. Shortly after, Clifton, a physician, notices the progress of the bridge and questions Nicholson:
CLIFTON: The fact is, what we’re doing could be construed as, forgive me sir, collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity.
NICHOLSON: Are you alright Clifton? We are prisoners of war, we haven’t the right to refuse work.
CLIFTON: I understand that sir, but must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they can build themselves?
NICHOLSON: Would you prefer to see this battalion disintegrate in idleness? Would you have it said that our chaps can’t do a proper job? Do you realize how important it is to show these people that they can’t break us in body or in spirit. Take a good look, Clifton. One day the war will be over and I hope the people who will use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers. British soldiers even in captivity.
How is the viewer supposed to interpret this odd scene? On one hand, Clifton is
right. The bridge will help their enemy. On the other, we again hear echoes of Price’s grandfather from “Good Work” in that how one works is just as important as the work itself. Likewise for Nicholson, “shoveling shit” or building a bridge- “work is work” and the value isn’t just in what’s accomplished but in the way it’s accomplished.
Could we go a step further and suggest that Colonel Nicholson is an artist? An artist wishing to create something functional, yes, but also something beautiful; a monument to hard work and craftsmanship, independent from any military or political objective. Nicholson’s men only see the bridge within utilitarian terms- a passageway from point A to point B. The bridge isn’t a work of art at all which makes it easy to undermine and eventually destroy. Conversely, Colonel Nicholson only sees it as a work of art. Even though their enemy is using the bridge with the intent to destroy the Colonel’s own military, the bridge has inherent value in and of itself- art for art’s sake in other words.
Is this overstating the importance of metaphor? Before you answer, let's look at a scene from Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview that was filmed in 1996, several years before Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In fact when this particular interview occurred, he had been fired from Apple and the company was only a few months away from bankruptcy. During the interview, Jobs is unusually reflective, a bit sullen, and completely unaware that within a year's time, he will return to Apple and eventually make it one of the most successful companies in the world.
When I was a kid, there was a widowed man that lived up the street and he was in his 80s. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he might have paid me to cut or mow his lawn or something. And one day, he said come into my garage, I want to show you something and he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler, and it was a motor and a coffee can and a little ban between them. And he said come with me, and we went out to the back and we got some rocks. Some regular, ugly old rocks. And we put them into the can with a little bit of liquid and a little bit of grit powder. And he closed the can up and turned this motor on and he said come back tomorrow. And the can was making this racket as the stones were turning. And I came back the next day, and … opened the can, and we took out these amazingly, beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this [smacking his hands together] creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful, polished rocks. And that’s always in my mind a metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. Is that it’s through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people that, bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together, they polish each other.
I read an article when I was very young in Scientific American and it measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet, so for bears and chimps and raccoons and birds and fish- how many kilocalories per kilometer they spend to move and humans were measured too and the condor won. It was the most efficient, and mankind, the crown of creation, came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. But somebody there had the brilliance to test a human riding a bicycle. Blew away the condor. All the way off the charts. I remember that this really had an impact on me. I really remember this, that humans are tool builders and we build tools that can dramatically amplify our innate human abilities. And to me, we actually ran an ad like this very early on at Apple that the personal computer was the bicycle of the mind.
To get a better understanding of symbolic or metaphorical language, let's look at a few definitions from Karen Armstrong’s book, History of God. Armstrong writes, "In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos." Logos signified the rational, objective, and literal; while Mythos represented a metaphorical, non-direct, symbolic interpretation. Armstrong goes on to write:
Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world.... People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition.... But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos or ‘myth.‘ Myth or figurative language was “designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior. Armstrong, Karen (2009-09-11). The Case for God. Random House, Inc.. Kindle.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant -
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
I was almost killed in car accident once. I was drunk. I ran off the side of the road and I turned the car over 4 times. And they took me out of that car for dead, but I lived. And I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died, but I got no answers to my prayers. I still don’t know why she died and I lived. I don’t know the answer to nothin. Not a blessed thing. I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk and you pitied me and took me in and helped me to straighten out and marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in the war. My daughter was killed in an automobile accident. Why? You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.
"Home" has always been one of literature's great themes- building a home, protecting one's home, leaving home. Odysseus’ sole mission was to return home.
In the opening passage of her novel Damage, Josephine Hart describes "Home" this way:
There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home.
Some find it in the place of their birth; others may leave a seaside town, parched, and find themselves refreshed in the desert. There are those born in rolling countryside who are really only at ease in the intense and busy loneliness of the city.
For some, the search is for the imprint of another; a child or a mother, a grandfather or a brother, a lover, a husband, a wife, or a foe.
We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved or unloved, without ever standing cold with the shock of recognition, without ever feeling the agony as the twisted iron in our soul unlocks itself and we slip at last into place.Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone… and are home. Here, Hart too is using the term "home" in a grand or mythic sense. When I read Hart's quote the first time, I was reminded of Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook, based on Nicholas Sparks novel. Most dismiss the story as mere genre, but there are a few interesting moments. The two main characters, Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) fall in love but then eventually become estranged. At one point, Allie is even set to marry someone else. In spite of this, Noah continues to rebuild a home he always envisioned living in with Allie. In doing so, he creates a room just for her where she can pursue her passion for painting. Shortly after seeing it, she laments the fact that she never paints anymore. She wants to, but for whatever reason, has stopped. We assume it’s because she has been busy or has simply forgotten- forgotten what’s important; essential. She’s reminded when Noah presents her this “room of one’s own.” By Noah understanding this need, even when Allie has forgotten it, their relationship moves beyond mere attraction, even beyond affection, to perhaps the truest form of intimacy- recognition. It’s one thing to be desirable to another, but it’s something else to be known. The house Noah built is a home but also acts as home in the mythic sense we've been discussing. Noah and Allie rekindle their relationship and something “unlocks itself” as both “slip at last into place.”