Inventory of Wonders: Soulful Living in an Age of Production
The bell calls in the town
Where forebears cleared the shaded land
And brought high daylight down
To shine on field and trodden road.
I hear, but understand
Contrarily, and walk into the woods.
I leave labor and load,
Take up a different story.
I keep an inventory
Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.
“Sabbaths - 1979, IV” by Wendell Berry
I have a hunch that I’m not the only person who reads the phrase, “I leave labor and load,” and thinks, “I’m allowed to do that? Also, how?”
I have the same reaction when I read the word “balance,” or the various and sundry tweets about opting out of the hustle to find rest. Paradoxically, in a realization that can leave me feeling like I land nowhere, I find that I just as often feel out of sync with calls for increased productivity and never-ending announcements of systems that will multiply my efforts to make more (better?) stuff.
The truth is, I don’t want a prescription for my work-making, and I don’t want one for my break-taking either. But what I’m rebelling against when I say that isn’t the notion of hard work, nor of intentional rest, nor even of listening to the wisdom of others. It’s the ideology that shapes our modern understanding of work and rest that isn’t working for me. It’s the cultural narrative that sits us down for story-time, opens the book, and tells us there’s an ideal balance to be struck, a quantitative measurement that will offer us happiness. It’s the whisper that lingers in our ears after story-time is over, suggesting that there is a way to render ourselves invincible and entirely efficient--work this much, rest this way. It’s the fact that I’ve become convinced that this whisper is actually an undercurrent, initially experienced as harmless, then suddenly sweeping us away.
So much of the modern advice around work and rest, input and output, is oriented to the idea of production. We consume products and we make them, we import and we export. None of this is inherently wrong; in fact, much of it can be used for great good. But I fear that we traffic so highly in the consumption and creation of the tangible that we neglect the inner-world to a perilous degree. I fear that we read, “I keep an inventory of wonders and of uncommercial goods,” and have no category for what that means, much less what it would look like to do it ourselves.
Since the Enlightenment, the Western World has lived in an age of resistance to boundaries, of always learning, doing, producing more, of seeking limitlessness, a life where we can have it all, whatever “all” is. And while there are tiny glimmers of truth and goodness in those ambitious pursuits, it seems that, overall, so much of what it is to be human is lost in their fervor. As our access to information grows exponentially with each passing day, our standards of what we should be capable of producing seem to grow with it. We fear that, in the sea of all that is “out there,” our tiny contribution will be swallowed by the waves.
We produce in order to fill our days, to bring home an income. As Ashley Hales writes, “Our frantic schedules reveal our functional value system.” We realize one day that we are measured by our output, by what the culture has deemed valuable, and we throw ourselves into proving that we belong here, that we can make stuff that people should find valuable enough to consume. We swallow the pill from the bottle labeled “consumer and producer,” and we let the elixir numb the part of us that keeps asking if we are, in fact, more.
In Vulnerable Communion, Thomas Reynolds writes of the “productive imperative,” which he defines as, “a kind of sociocultural obligation that pressures human bodies to exhibit qualities and perform in ways that are useful and thus generate capital. This is mediated specifically by market-driven economies.” More simply put, we are driven by the idea of making stuff that will make money. And when the goal is production and the resulting compensation, the human becomes a cog in the wheel, a tool in the hands of the all-powerful system, worth only as much as his or her performance justifies.
When performance and production are the goal, it is wildly difficult to prioritize the small and slow, the work of the mind and heart and soul that are yet to have produced something tangible. It is easier to fixate on rest as an idea and make a list of ways to do it than it is to actually rest. It is easier to read books for the purpose of sharing our thoughts on them than it is to read the book and let it sit within us a while, asking ourselves what it told us, if it fits with what we know and believe, if it should. It is easier to just keep producing, to increase our efficiency, to get the conveyer belt moving so fast that its hum drowns out our cries for true fulfillment.
We know objectively, of course, that human beings are not machines. We are thirsty souls in limited bodies, capable of much yet in need of marinating, absorbing, and stewing upon what we read, hear, and see. In a world loud and fearful, there is need for a subversive few willing to reclaim thoughtfulness and pondering, to recognize the limitations of what they can produce, and to discover creative freedom within gracious boundaries. There is a hole in our society longing to be filled with a reclaimed definition of personhood, one that prioritizes productivity but does not make it king, one that understands, as Hannah Anderson writes, “We are made in God’s image, but we must never forget that we are made.
Hal Koss offers a helpful image as we seek to reframe our perspectives, stating we are “creature, not Creator, designed with limits in mind, protected by jigs from being left to my own devices, helped more by fixed guides than free rein as I try to progress in the project of becoming more human.” I offer him a hearty “Amen.” To acknowledge our humanity is not to lose, it is to gain. It is to see clearly who we are in light of the God Who made us. It is to begin to understand our boundaries not as shackles, but as parameters that define for us what we really have to work with inside these limited yet wondrous human confines. May we exchange robotic hands for whole hearts, and discover the resulting treasures to be a gift both to our own souls and to those around us.