Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Integrity: Make it Right

"Look up there. You see that?"

It was my second week on the job, and W. (the cabinetmaker) had just finished a floor-to-ceiling piece and was standing back, eyeing his work critically. Obviously, something was irritating him about the finished product, but I just couldn't see it. Pulling out his tape measure, he moved around the nine-foot tall structure taking numbers and muttering to himself. Eventually, he appeared to reach a conclusion.

"This piece of plywood is a quarter inch short."

Apparently, the vertical divider in the cabinet had been cut incorrectly. Because the box was so wide, the flexibility of the plywood had allowed W. to assemble the piece without realizing it was wrong. I was a little surprised when he began disassembling the cabinet, because the flaw was, after all, nearly impossible to see with an untrained eye. Half an hour later, the cabinet was back in the same place, looking for all the world exactly as it had thirty minutes before. Thinking to butter up the old man with some bullshit, I said, "Well, that looks a lot better!"

The craftsman looked at me and said almost apathetically, "That's not the point. If it's wrong, you fix it."

*     *     *

It has taken me two months to write this post because I have been struggling with how to put down the ideas this brief interaction stirred in me. But I've got it now. It's integrity. Similar moments have been happening almost daily over the past eight weeks, and I am reminded every time of what W. taught me that day.

It doesn't matter what anyone else sees. What matters is that your actions reflect your character. Could that exceedingly minor flaw have passed the notice of nearly every person on the planet? Undoubtedly, yes. But the one person who would always know it was wrong was the man who built it. He would always know that he had passed off a sub-par cabinet on some unknowing white-collar who had trusted the company to deliver perfection (or a reasonable approximation thereof).

I cannot catch every flaw, every mistake. Even W. and J Boss miss things from time to time. But any flaw I catch, and certainly every mistake I make, I either fix or admit to--whether or not anyone else will ever notice and regardless of whether I will get chewed out for it. I let something slide once... something I had done. Nobody ever noticed or found out. But I think about that one small rectangle of maple regularly, wondering if anyone will ever notice my mistake. It was an accident, and a pretty unremarkable one at that. But I will always know that I had the opportunity and ability to make it right and instead chose not to. 

What other people can see is unimportant. What matters isn't impression, but integrity. If it's wrong, you make it right.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Toward a Theology of Work

Nearly every day at work, the interconnectedness of things is shoved in my face. Perhaps this is because I am a cabinetmaker's apprentice. If you don't know, cabinetry is an exact art. I have done my fair share of handyman-type work, but until I started this job, I had no idea how much difference 1/64 of an inch could make. I start at the very beginning, taking (practically) raw lumber, cutting and milling it first to rough and then exact dimensions. W. (the cabinetmaker) does the work that requires real finesse, cutting intricate patterns in the wood and joining different pieces to make the individual parts of a complete cabinet. Then, I make it all smooth with various grades of sandpaper, and the finisher makes it look like one solid piece of wood.

Hopefully, the homeowner is happy with the final result. But what I realized today is that the end result largely depends on me. If I don't do my job correctly, and the wood is milled to inexact sizes or is full of knots and warped, everyone who comes after me is working with flawed material from the start. If I am unaware of what I am doing, I waste not only my time, but everyone else's time as well.

Mine is the roughest, most inexact stage of production, but it is also the most vital. (Granted, the people who make the plans we follow have a more vital role in this scheme of things, but I know so much less than they do that I choose not to comment in this respect.) If I make a mistake, everyone pays for it. Either a piece will have to be re-made, or it will have to be wiggled in some way that costs everyone time and money.

Every little thing counts. Every mistake I look past, saying, "Someone else will catch that", could potentially ruin the job. So I am forced into awareness at work. I am forced to pay attention to the details no one else will see. And it makes me happy. People talk about "work ethic", and I suppose this is what they mean. But to me, this is a theology of work. I get to participate daily in the creative action of God, who lets nothing slide by as unimportant, who sees the effect of every seemingly insignificant action... who cares infinitely about the happiness of the person at the end of the line.

It would be easy to say that my job is boring because I sand wood all day. But I say my job is fulfilling because I know that it is so much bigger than me and the task I'm given. I know that if I do it right, my coworkers will be less harassed, my boss will have less to fret about, and our customers will feel like they did a good thing in hiring us. That means referrals and more jobs, which in turn means I can make more money to take care of my family.

J Boss probably thinks that when I tell him I am grateful to be working, I mean that I am grateful to have a job, but there's so much more to it than that...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Terrifying Angels

"For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, 
which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.

Every angel is terrifying."

-Rilke, Duino Elegies

Dawn was cooler than usual this morning. I wake up at six to get ready for work, and for months now it has been sticky and warm outside, with the sun already brightening my street. Today, I got chills as I walked out into the half-light. Did this happen so suddenly, or was I simply too busy to be aware of the subtleties of seasonal change? It reminded me of something I realized when I was in... let's call it "governmental custody": when I am not around, things are still happening, and even if I am there--whether I take the time to appreciate it or not--everything is moving and changing all around me. I find the greatest beauty in this.

Once, at Mepkin, I walked out of Vespers and sat in a chair out on the bluff behind the church. The sun was setting, and its slanting rays were creeping across the grass, silhouetting the trees over the river. I was staring blankly at the grass just in front of me, working beads and muttering the Russian pilgrim's prayer, when the sun's rays lit the green blades on fire with golden light. The mantra in my mind stopped instantly. For a moment, I encountered reality completely. And it scared the shit out of me.

When the fire in the grass faded and shadows again covered my feet, I took a few moments to breathe deeply and walked to my cell (yes, monks call their rooms cells). I thought long and hard about what I had seen and why I had felt fear in the face of it. Over time, I came to realize that true beauty is terrifying because it shows us how small we are in this world, and how large we must also be to have the ability to recognize it. Beautiful, terrifying things happen every day, every moment.

It is chilly out in the morning now; the world is changing again. It happens whether or not we care to take notice and appreciate it. Our ability to see shows us how small we really are. But we are divine because we can notice and respond with gratitude. The universe is a frighteningly big place, yet I am alive and play a part.

There is nothing more incredible than being alive.