Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2004, Amy Carpenter-Leugs shares how working as a temp provides rest and opportunity to reflect on the nature of work.
Do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.
—The Archmage in The Wizard of Earthsea: The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. LeGuin
I had worked as a teacher and a social worker, but in 1996, as my husband’s consulting job moved us from state to state, my new title was “The Temp.” The constantly changing landscape of new co-workers all made the same jokes about The Temp. The stereotype, I suppose, is that of a yawning bimbo who does her nails at her desk and absent-mindedly destroys the files for the company’s largest account. But I didn’t mind.
At times I rode the bus to my various workplaces, watching those much more experienced in the ways of this mode of travel: the comfortably obese office worker who took out her knitting, the trim but balding businessman who read the sports section, the young man in jeans and T-shirt (a student? artist? programmer?) who dropped his fare in the box nonchalantly, without looking, while I dug in my purse and had to recount my coins. Other times I drove, finding the back roads in each new city, discovering that drivers’ idiosyncrasies varied from state to state: in Houston, people drove well but fast, while Bostonians customarily stopped lines of traffic by slowly and clumsily negotiating a left turns onto busy two-lane highways. As a temp, I watched the world around me. I wasn’t obsessing over the papers I had to grade, the students with whom I was having trouble, whether or not my peers thought I was doing a good job. I was The Temp. I did as I was told, quietly, quickly and well. And then I walked out the door without another thought for the files left on my desk, never knowing outcomes, never worrying that I had made the wrong decision. The decisions weren’t mine to make.
As a temp, my role was to watch, listen, and learn; but my goal was only to get through the day, not to improve future job performance. As hard as it was for me to get used to, the learning was all for my own benefit. What a waste! I would sometimes think. I should be helping, doing, acting, fixing, and teaching.
But . . .
I met single parents that made medical pipettes and struggled with their bosses over leaving work in time to pick up their children from daycare. I worked side by side with a newly married mortgage underwriter who woke up one morning to find her car and her husband gone. I typed reports for a nurse who loved to eat at a restaurant that served flowers. I traded breaks with a secretary whose adult daughter had undergone a botched breast augmentation surgery and now wore prosthetics where her four limbs had once been. Everyone had a story, and when I stayed at an assignment for a week or so, I usually had the honor of hearing it.
I used to hear stories as a teacher, as well, between bells and lesson planning and writing out detentions. What was different now? As The Temp, I could be present, I didn’t try to shape the story, to fix the situation, to offer solutions, to play the expert. I watched and listened and learned. At home after a day of temp work, I wrote down observations and struggled to make sense of it all. I let the stories shape me and fix me. I took what they had to offer. I did not act because it was not my place to do so, and that period of inaction turned out to be a great lesson in itself.
I recently received a letter from a young man, a prospective seminary student, asking for support as he explores his calling to ministry with a missionary trip to Russia. I am embarrassed to admit that when people tell me that they believe they’ve been convicted to do something, or that they feel a calling to a certain line of work, I begin to get nervous. It is a rare person who understands that our actions do not have a simple beginning and end. One act chains off into another, and that into another, affecting the balance in the surrounding system. If I help this young minister-to-be, what will come of it?
As a teacher, when I praised a student, I rarely considered the full effects of what I did. Did my praise encourage the student to rely on external instead of internal motivation? Did my praise cause other students to feel jealous, to pick on the one receiving praise when I wasn’t around? When I taught writing skills, did I seed the students with a love of writing, as I intended, or plant a hatred of writing in a student was not ready to do what I asked, no matter how gently I tried to introduce the topic?
Consequences can reach much farther than this. What if I encouraged an ambitious student to help others? Perhaps that student became a doctor. What if that doctor went to Namibia, and established a clinic that successfully increased the longevity of the people of that region? Sounds good so far. But what if the food system of that region could not support the increased population, and so famine broke out? This situation has happened countless times, and though I would not be the direct cause, my blithe advice to help others, without thought to preserving balance, could result in tragedy. Well-intentioned, but tragedy all the same.
This is what I think of now, when I receive a letter about somebody’s calling, asking for prayer and monetary support. This is what I try to remember when I receive a request for guidance. I remember The Wizard of Earthsea, written by that insightful systems thinker, Ursula LeGuin: “Do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.”
“‘Consider the lilies’ is the only biblical command I have ever obeyed,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Consider the lilies indeed. What kind of soil do they need, what wind, rain and sun, what birds or rodents to carry their seeds, what needs do they have that I’m completely overlooking? I don’t know, and this worries me. Is it possible that our human brains do not have the capacity to understand our systems and our habitat completely? The research psychologist Dietrich Dorner has shown the human inability to gauge the effect on systems by mechanisms such as exponential growth and delayed consequences. In one experiment after another, test subjects continue to be flummoxed by the unforeseen effects, often resorting to wishful, illogical thinking and contradictory hypotheses.
Yet I do believe that God has given us what we need to act as Jesus commanded us: instruments of the Kingdom. He’s given us the powers of watching, listening, learning. He’s given us elders who can show us the benefit of patience and observation before acting. He’s given us silence, quiet times of prayer and meditation when we connect to the whole. Perhaps what we need to do, then, is to take time to use these tools—to stop acting, stop helping, stop saving for just long enough to understand what we might be doing. We often act with great urgency and haste. If bringing about the Kingdom took longer, say, if it took our culture a generation or two to do so, would that be too long? In God’s eyes?
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” When I do consider the lilies, it occurs to me that one of the most important systems in our lives, the system by which we acquire food, has been breaking for thousands of years. At one time, humans lived in balance just as the lilies do. What happened? The Bible tells us the story, but how are we to interpret the tale?
Author and thinker Daniel Quinn compares the Biblical fall from grace with the fairly recent practice of locking up the food. When we lived as hunter-gatherers and herder-farmers, Quinn explains, people were in the hands of God, accepting what each day brought. But when we decided to store food against long winters and the possibility of droughts, we took measures into our own hands, and out of the hands of God.
As always happens, each action caused another action; the community’s food must be guarded to conserve it for the lean times, and those who guard it must be fed, for they do not produce their own food. Thus the farmers and hunters were required to meet their own future needs, and also produce a surplus to feed the guards. The surpluses allowed communities to survive the lean times, and so their population grew, resulting in more workers to feed and more food to be stored.
Soon, all the food was locked up. Instead of taking the earth’s bounty as it was offered, the fruit of the trees, the grains of the field, the running herd of wild game—we now work to buy it. As consultants and temps, we do not work to directly produce our own food, clothing or shelter; we work instead to wrest them back from the industries and governments that hold the keys. As we work, many of us seek a calling to make the work meaningful and special, seek to find our identities in the work. Failing to find such meaning, some of us end up lost: to drink, to gangs, and even (as two people I knew) to suicide.
We think of these lost souls as broken, but perhaps it is our current concept of work itself that is broken. Perhaps we were meant not to both earn a living and save the world, as so many of us try to do, but simply to live in balance. I don’t know how to retrieve that balance, but I believe Jesus came to call us to a new way, a way beyond the civilization we know, beyond locking up food, back into connectedness and wholeness. If Quinn is right, the system is broken nearly beyond recognition, but I wonder if we can find the pieces, and shape from them a new form.
So I consider the lilies. And I consider the life of The Temp.
Most of all, I consider.