September 10, 2007

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

When I was a reporter in Nome, I worked at least 40 hours a week and frequently more, covering whatever happened to be newsworthy. So it has been quite a shock to work in Itipini, where we show up around 9:30 and are done by 3.

On the one hand, it is nice to have the time in the afternoon to read and relax while it is still daylight (though the commute eats up significant time on both ends). But on the other hand, part of me wants to scream, “These people are living in horrible conditions. How come we aren’t working round the clock to make them better!” There are a number of talented people working in Itipini. Surely if we all worked longer and harder we’d do more good than we’re doing now.

In fact, I’ve taken this thought further at times and thought about how unjust it is that at the end of a day of work I can return to my electrified home with running water, cook a hot dinner with food that’s been in a refrigerator all day, and generally be warm and safe all night long. If I’m truly to serve the people of Itipini, should I not only work long and hard hours but also actually become one of them as well?

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s excellent memoir The Seven Storey Mountain lately and this passage, in which he speaks with a Hindu monk, caught my eye and helped me wrestle with some of these thoughts:

One of the chief reasons he [the monk] gave for the failure of any Christian missionaries to really strike deep into the tremendous populations of Asia was the fact that they maintained themselves on a social level that was too far above the natives. The Church of England, indeed, though they would convert the Indians by maintaining a strict separation – white men in one church, natives in a different church: both of them listening to sermons on brotherly love and unity. [Merton is always looking for opportunities to slam the Anglicans it seems.]

I don’t know anything about missionaries: but I am sure that, by our own standards of living, their life is an arduous and difficult one, and certainly not one that could be regarded as comfortable. And by comparison with life in Europe and America it represents a tremendous sacrifice. Yet I suppose it would literally endanger their lives if they tried to subsist on the standard of living with which the vast majority of Asiatics have to be content.
Perhaps I am too busy quantifying the good we are doing to realize it really can’t be quantified. What matters is that somehow the interactions between the people of Itipini and us build a small part of God’s kingdom in this corner of South Africa. No human or group of humans will ever be able to snap their fingers and make all things well. To use economic terms, I’m not sure what the marginal gain of each additional hour of work would be, though the marginal cost to us would increase the more we worked. So what matters, then, is not how much gets done but that it gets done at all and done well.

Still, part of me can’t shake the thought that it’s all a complicated rationalization for a short work day.

(Of course, there's a ton of behind-the-scenes work that makes Itipini function so smoothly that I am not yet really aware of. I'm sure if I had to do all that, I'd be complaining about working too much.)