Here we go again

Once again in my life, I find myself looking for work, and I’m not entirely sure in which direction to look. I once again face the issue of being “over-qualified”, while still trying to work out what I am actually qualified to do. I find I still don’t have a “passion for customer service” or any deep affinity with or desire to work in the likes of the recruitment industry (and as before, I’m not prepared to lie about such things).

Obviously I’m seeking to be flexible, and part of me would be happy with any paid employment that I could be confident I could perform reasonably well in. But I also find myself at present longing for something else. I want, at least at present, to leave academia behind. I want to leave theory behind, and any other writing or research which is unattached from reality. I want to get out of my own head (and anyone else’s). I want to actually do or build something real. At the same time, so many jobs out there don’t seem to actually accomplish all that much, whether that be basic retail work or the various graduate jobs at the big accountancy firms. What vital societal functions, however small, do they accomplish? What do they actually build?

I feel – and perhaps I’m romanticising it all too much – that I really miss the existence of a frontier. An opportunity to find and build something new, for whoever was willing to take the risks, pay the price and work hard. Sure, living conditions were undoubtedly pretty horrible, and the work involved likely tedious and hard (I have no illusions that, say, planting a new farmstead was either easy or especially thrilling – most work throughout human history hasn’t been). What might be accomplished might be quite small in the great scheme of things: a settlement, a village, a farm or even just a house. But it was building something real and new that hadn’t been there before, something that actually exists. While I will take whatever work I can get, part of me is filled with a restlessness desire to push back some frontier and build something new, but I cannot see where any frontier is. I don’t want to add to the pile of useless sales executives or whatever that western society is already full of. I want to explore the unknown, I want to plan cities out of nothing, I want to build mag-lev lines across Greenland, I want to build a great state out of a small city. These are perhaps foolish desires. But it’d be nice to find some work, however small and tedious, that would allow me to find something new, or build something that is real, or which makes some real contribution – however small – to the world around me.

 

“Mere morality is not the end of life”

All right, Christianity will do you good a great deal more good than you ever wanted or expected. And the first bit of good it will do you is to hammer into your head (you won’t enjoy that!) the fact that what you have hitherto called ‘good’ — all that about ‘leading a decent life’ and ‘being kind’ — isn’t quite the magnificent and all-important affair you supposed. It will teach you that in fact you can’t be ‘good’ (not for twenty-four hours) on your own moral efforts. And then it will teach you that even if you were, you still wouldn’t have achieved the purpose for which you were created. Mere morality is not the end of life. You were made for something quite different from that. J. S. Mill and Confucius (Socrates was much nearer the reality) simply didn’t know what life is about. The people who keep on asking if they can’t lead a decent life without Christ, don’t know what life is about; if they did they would know that ‘a decent life’ is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear — the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.

‘When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away’ (1 Cor 13:10). The idea of reaching ‘a good life’ without Christ is based on a double error. Firstly, we cannot do it; and secondly, in setting up ‘a good life’ as our final goal, we have missed the very point of our existence. Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to he accomplished. For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are ‘done away’ and the rest is a matter of flying.

– from C.S. Lewis, “Man or Rabbit?”

“Jim, you don’t understand”

I came across this story a long time ago, when it was very helpful to me in understanding several things. Since I’ve just come across it once again, I’d thought I’d post it:

There is a little farm on the edge of Tooele where my father was born. My Aunt Jessie still lives there. She’s in her nineties now, and she has so many grandchildren and great grandchildren that none of us can count them, but she knows them all. She’s a remarkable person. It was on this farm, when we were teenagers, that my father decided my brother and I needed to learn how to work. He was running the newspaper in town and being president of a stake that covered a hundred square miles. He was pretty busy, but he had my brother and me working on that farm. We were in the 4-H program, and a bunch of the fathers of the boys in the 4-H program bought some purebred, registered Guernseys from the Northwest and brought them down, and we all got a cow. I should say my brother got a cow, and, since I was his little brother, it was mine by association. I don’t know how many of you have had experience with cows, but our cow had heifer after heifer after heifer, and, when you get a heifer, you end up with another cow; and, when you end up with another cow, that’s one more cow to milk. It was not very long until we were sort of in the business. We had a number of cows that we were milking, and it was quite an experience. We built a little reservoir on the farm so that we wouldn’t have to get up at three o’clock in the morning to take the water. We could run the water in the reservoir and use it as we needed it.

We had some great experiences on the farm, my teenage brother and I, unsupervised. I think he was more steady than I was. We had some fruit trees and a lot of lucern, a lot of hay. We grew some corn; we grew a little wheat. We had a number of things on that farm. We weren’t the best farmers in the world. We were doing the best we could, but we were not the best farmers. We were surrounded by other farms, and those farms were being farmed by people who knew what they were doing. One day one of the neighbors came to my father. He was a farmer, and he had a whole list of the things that my brother and I were doing wrong. I think I could have added more things to that list than he had. Anyway, he went down the list as he was talking to my father, and my father sat back and then he said, “Jim, you don’t understand. You see, I’m raising boys, not cows.”

Elder Loren C. Dunn, “Our Spiritual Heritage”, BYU Devotional, May 4th 1982

“Choosing to be happy” and emotional integrity

I quite frequently run across the idea that happiness is a choice. In some sense this is very true. There’s definitely some choices that can prevent us from being happy, especially in the long term, for “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Our eternal happiness is dependent upon our ultimate choice, with “one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness’ (Alma 41:5), and ‘joy or remorse of conscience” being given to us “according to [our] desires” (Alma 29:5). It’s also true that from an eternal perspective we can “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” even when we are persecuted and mistreated (Matthew 5:11-12) although it’s clear here this is talking in the sense of being fortunate in the knowledge that we are experiencing the same as the prophets and will be blessed like them, rather than actual emotional contentment from abuse. Likewise we can “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations [trials]” (James 1:2), providing we realise its talking of [i]being[/i] fortunate, and not necessarily [i]feeling[/i] overjoyed.

However, this notion of happiness being a choice often seems mixed up with other ideas. There’s the idea that our attitude alone can dictate our happiness, meaning our emotional state, and that positive thinking can guarantee happiness. There’s the belief that somehow God has promised us continuous happiness in this life. Related to both the above is the idea that we should always be feeling happy.

There are problems with all this. It is certainly the case that we need to keep perspective, count our blessings, and refrain from dwelling on our miseries. But the idea that a positive attitude alone is all that is necessary to guarantee continual emotional happiness is solipsistic, seeming to assume that there is nothing anyone else can do (even God), or that can happen to anyone else, that can affect our emotions. But this is untrue. Likewise, there are some emotional trials that positive thinking alone cannot fix, as Elder Holland points out regarding depression: “no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively”. If we believe that God has somehow promised continual emotional contentment in this life, then when the inevitable emotional disappointments happen we may think God has somehow failed us. Or, if we believe that our emotional state is always and readily under our control, we may believe that if we are feeling unhappy we have chosen to do so, and even that feeling unhappy is thereby a sin.

Unhappiness is not a sin

As said, it is important to retain perspective, be grateful to the Lord for our blessings (D&C 59:7) and be able to see his hand in all things (59:21). But ‘negative’ emotions will come, and these are not necessarily sins in themselves or the result of sins. Jacob (as I’ve mentioned before) speaks of ‘mourn[ing] out our days’, while Alma, leaving Ammonihah for the first time, was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul” because of the people’s failure to repent (Alma 8:14). Mormon even speaks of being “without hope” where his people were concerned (Mormon 5:2). None of the feelings of these men were sins.

Then there is the example of the Saviour himself, who was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The image we have of the Saviour may cause us to forget that he experienced the full gamut of emotions we do. Sure, he loved (Mark 10:21, John 11:5) and felt compassion (Matthew 20:34). But he was also felt anger (Mark 3:5, Mark 10:14), wept (John 11:35, Luke 19:41), felt amazement and anguish (Mark 14:33) and deep distress (Luke 12:50). It is difficult to imagine all these emotions coexisting with a permanent feeling of happiness. And in all this, if we have seen Him we “hath seen the Father” (John 14:9), for as we learn from Enoch’s vision even the God of heaven feels indignation, anger and weeps for His children (Moses 7:28-34).

Emotional honesty and “bridling” our passions

It is okay to experience times of unhappiness and disappointment. By so doing we walk in the path of many of the best people who have ever walked on this earth, including the Saviour himself. It’s part of the purpose of this life, to experience trials and be tested, and the path of discipleship, as President Monson has stated, involves following the Saviour along paths such as those of disappointment and pain. And it’s important to be able to admit when we are, even just to ourselves. As Elder Cook quoted (also from the October 2014 General Conference) “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are'”? Pretending to be happy is not going to make us be happy.

That sort of pretending can hurt us more than we realise. Sure, sometimes we must simply grit our teeth and persevere. But sometimes unhappiness and emotional discomfort, like physical pain, can teach us that there’s something we should change, about ourselves or our circumstances. Sometimes its right and proper to seek help from others. At other times, they are simply part of the coin of love, when we feel the distress of those we care about. In this way we can perhaps begin to understand in the smallest way how our Lord God feels.

Denying these feelings any place cuts us off from that. It can deprive us of the power we can gain from an emotional integrity, where we can admit to ourselves and God how we are truely feeling, and honestly lay those feelings at his feet (I have long been impressed by the honesty of the Psalmists, something I feel we can only benefit from in our prayers). Furthermore, as a friend pointed out to me last year, we are not asked to suppress or eliminate our emotions. Rather the scriptural instruction is to “bridle” our “passions” (Alma 38:12): a bridle does not kill a horse or stop it in its tracks, rather it allows us to steer it, to turn its strength and power to our advantage.

We are not promised continual happiness in this world. While “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25), we must also taste misery so we might have joy (v.23) and “in this world your joy is not full” (D&C 101:36). A fulness of joy awaits us in the next life (D&C 93:33). What Christ does offer us, however, is peace (John 14:27), peace that will not preserve us from all sadness and heartache, but which can help us endure them. And – as I have very much experienced this past year – even amongst deep sadness we can have supernal moments of joy.

Reciprocity

Something I’ve found, and that has increasingly bothered me, is the lack of reciprocity we encounter in life. In all my recent dealings with potential employers, universities and government departments there has been a fundamental imbalance in the relationship.

Thus, applications frequently require a significant amount of work – including the dreaded, and useless, compentancy questions – but rarely garner even a form letter as a reply. Mistakes on your end can result in severe consequences – imprisonment in the most extreme cases, but a mistake on the part of one of these organisations requires significant effort for them to even fix, nor can you expect even an apology. Hence the difference in treatment if you made a mistake in your taxes (expected to be hounded, at the very least) to what happens if Inland Revenue takes too much (if they get round to paying it back, expect it in 18 months). My own recent experience with the DWP involved multiple phone calls to try and get them to correct their mistake. Each time they promised to call back by a certain time, and except for once failed in that promise. Try that in reverse, however, and the consequences would be unpleasant.

I suspect it is the lack of reciprocity that most people experience that contributes to the feeling of powerlessness that I suspect many feel, and to the disenchantment many feel towards government. No matter what rhetoric there is about responding to people’s needs, such relations are not conducted on the basis of equality.

I suspect part of the problem is simply one of scale. In each of these cases there is one large organisation and one individual. One individual simply isn’t important enough to a large company or government department. It probably doesn’t help that, due to the way call centres and so on work, you rarely deal the same individual again. This is not only aggravating (since you have to explain everything, again and again), but the responsibility to deal with a problem is diminished – since no one person has specific responsibility to deal with a situation, it’s noone’s fault and noone’s to pushed to fix it. Mind you, this lack of recipirocity also seems to manifest with quite small companies.

Turning to the implications for government, this problem is particularly glaring in the light of various political theories regarding the ‘social contract’. I’m somewhat critical of such ideas – try finding a state that was actually established by such a contract – but this concept is further weakened if the state involved does not deal on a reciprocal basis with its citizens. What justification then for the state’s existence? The only justification left then is a straight recourse to power, which in turn leaves citizens on the level of serfs. That said, since this phenomena seems to affect private companies as much as it does government.

In contrast, I find the doctrine of covenants quite liberating in this context – while God sets the terms, he agrees to enter into a relationship of reciprocity with the individual. We take on certain commitments, and He promises certain blessings. This does mean though, that while the eternal Lord and Creator of Heaven and Earth is prepared to deal on a reciprocal basis with individuals, governments and companies really can’t be bothered.

It’s an odd pattern, and not a just one either. Reciprocity is surely an essential part of a fundamentally just society, and political reform in the name of greater accountability without it would surely be fundamentally useless. I do wonder, however, whether the concept of covenant as applied to government could be part of a solution. Were a ‘social covenant’ renewed with each new generation of citizens – with stated terms for each side, and on a reciprocal basis – could government become truly accountable?

Why do you want to work here?

I find myself still seeking work, still waiting for a decision on my Phd application and still dealing with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the DWP, all of which is infuriating and vexing to the soul. I find the lack of reciprocity disturbing and the bureaucratic desire to reduce everything down to boxes stifling, all of which are worthy of comment at some point.

However, one thing I’ve found my attention drawn to is the myriad ways that honesty is discouraged and dishonesty encouraged, something best encapsulated in the above question that nearly all employers ask. Virtually all employers ask prospective employees why they want to work there, but peculiarly, they don’t want to hear the real answer – namely that the prospective employee needs a job. Rather the prospective employee is expected to manufacture some answer about their great desire to work in that particular role, or for that particular company – an answer that is true in a few cases, but certainly not a majority. If you’re Tate & Lyle, people are not coming to work for you because of the appeal of your corporate culture. Yet employers evidently don’t want to, and choose not to hear this, and prefer to hear some elaborate fiction.

Thus, at the very beginning of the relationship between an employer and employee, dishonesty is made part of the foundation of their working relationship. And yet few seem to find it disturbing that our society chooses to establish its working relations on falsehood. I can’t presume to know the full consequences of this on our society, but it surely can’t be a surprise when elsewhere in working environments – bank debts, hospital scandals and so on – unwelcome truths are hidden away, since that pattern is established at the very beginning.