on the absurdity of an occupation


Yesterday was a middling day at work for The Man, for the most part. It alternated between being steady and unusually slow, with the normal troubles and complications of a Monday. In a moment between tasks, I peeked at the day’s headlines, which around midday ended up being a singular headline; nothing more than a tweet from the Boston Globe. Something about an explosion at the Boston Marathon.

By any standard definition, it was a terrorist attack. And I had a job to do.

My prior life in ministry, coupled with a strong philosophical and theological bent toward compassion and justice in times of crisis, made it one of the most uncomfortable afternoons I’ve ever had at work. My heart wanted to see the events unfold, to step away and pray in real-time, to see what I could do to help. Of course, in these circumstances, there is little that can be done away from being experienced in triage or law enforcement. The will to care and the impossibility to care created a most absurd set of circumstances: doing a job when shocking events leave a city thousands of miles away in anguish. To be sure, in my work environment, there wasn’t much contact with the Northeast after that. Things got eerily quiet from the Eastern time zone.

I remember calling my father when 9/11 happened. I don’t know what he did that day, how he could keep working when something devastating happened to our country. More recently, I remember being in full-service hotel management in Kansas City when the hurricane-force tornado obliterated Joplin. I had to keep an eye on that massive system because it began creeping north along US-71 and as the manager on duty, it was up to me to have to engage severe weather procedures if necessary. (Several of our staff served in Joplin in the ensuing weeks after the tornado. Their stories still induce chills.) Be it natural evil or human inhumanity to other humans, that feeling of powerlessness, of helplessness, creates a bizarre state of affairs–or at least it does for me: what am I doing in a job I don’t necessarily love when there is so much work to be done in healing a broken world? Why am I not still doing ministry? Why can’t I serve in a way that brings relief, brings gospel, to a people visibly shaken by a murderous and atrocious act of cowards?

It is here where I think that I think more of myself than I necessarily should.

What we do is our occupation, which is odd, because the word implies that it is what we do to fulfill our time, when in reality, it’s what we do to keep our lights on and families fed. It’s not so much an occupation as it is indentured servanthood, the negotiation we must participate in to be full participants in culture. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but our routine is exposed for the falsehood it ultimately is when bombs go off. Who we are is revealed in these times. It is of no small note that people–public servants and regular citizens alike–rushed to the blast site within moments of the flash-bang, that the citizens of Boston opened their homes to stranded marathoners, that the Red Cross within mere hours of zero hour issued a statement saying that area blood supplies were ample and no additional donations were needed at this time. These things can and should give us hope that we are not entirely doomed as a people and society. (Though the decision to shut off cell service in the area is problematic, both on utilitarian and libertarian ethical planes.)

Our occupation, then, is not what we do with punch cards, but what we do for those for whom we choose to care. We do not occupy our time with our professions, they are what occupy us. We occupy our time with selfless compassion and a rush to provide justice–in this case, critical care and comfort–for those affected by events completely outside of our control. What we do in these circumstances is a direct revelation of who we are. To sit and keep working is not to be purposefully ignorant of the events which transfixed a nation, but it is what I have to do to support my family and maintain a, um, working relationship with work. Penultimate concerns within ultimate concern.

All I can do is ask God to be present with those who mourn and suffer, as the scriptures have promised God will, that those who can help are doing everything within their power, and that those who employ those who can help are supportive and themselves part of the healing process. And that those who have perpetrated this act are brought to account for their actions. Mercy returned for mercy in kind.

In these absurd days, may order be marked with compassion and this be a sobering reminder that we exist for one another, we occupy each others’ space and time, and that when the world comes crashing down, we must stand for those who have fallen under its weight. We all have jobs to do, some menial, some powerful, some go unnoticed while others are done in a fishbowl, but we cannot exist without one another.

When the world crashes down, there is but one job to be done.

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