It was every shirker’s nightmare. This particular tax inspector in Finland had spent years cultivating a reputation for dependability. Each day he’d shown up for work, punctually. He’d given every appearance of dedication as he hunched over his desk for hours at a time. And I can only assume that his boss and colleagues considered him to be a productive co-worker. But as it turned out, were I a delinquent taxpayer in Finland, he’s the guy I’d want on my case. Why so? There was actually a lot less here than met the eye. So his office-mates duly discovered when they realized he’d been sitting there, dead, for two days.
Now I don’t mean to belittle the worth of fellow human beings, especially when they are down and out for the count. But if you can sit at your desk for two days, dead, and nobody notices, then there’s a problem here. If your presence makes not one whit of a difference to the people with whom you rub elbows, then there are some issues to confront. And if, as you lie in state at your funeral, the eulogist has to strain every creative brain cell to explain what you did that made the world a better place, then that’s a very sad day, in more ways than one.
To a recent article in The Economist I owe this bit about the Finnish tax inspector. The latter was but one example of the larger problem of skiving, better-known in America as shirking, that seems to plague most organizations. Specifically, the writer cites figures suggesting the average worker wastes one and a half to three hours a day. As for who these people tend to be, evidence shows that those most accomplished in the art of shirking are to be found at either (and both) ends of the pay scale. You’ll find them equally in the public and private sectors. And though they are sprinkled among the newer companies, more often than not the people making personal mountains out of mole hills are at the older and more sclerotic institutions. But the important point is this: no organization is exempt. No doubt that explains the candid slip by Pope John XXIII, when a reporter asked how many people worked at the Vatican. “About half,” he responded dryly. After all, the man was a saint, and he couldn’t tell a fib.
I won’t comment on the lack of integrity that marks those who shirk their responsibilities. Who knows why some people prefer to put in a half day’s work for a full day’s pay? Nor will I touch on the injustice done to over-worked colleagues who must take up the slack. Rather, I prefer to focus on the self-degradation of people who are blessed with loads of talent but choose instead to bury it all in the ground, or hide it under the bushel.
Saint Benedict in his Rule is well-aware of the possibility that people can take inordinate pride in their abilities. It can “puff them up,” he writes. But he’s more than willing to take that risk, because it is of far greater importance that monks make good use of all the abilities that come their way. And when he commands that we treat the tools of the monastery as sacred, as if they were the vessels of the altar, then you have a pretty good idea of where he stands on the issue. In each and every instance, all varieties of work in the monastery are sacred, and a monk works not so much for personal fulfillment but rather in service to God and neighbor. That, I might conclude, is how a monk makes the monastery a better place. And by extension that applies to all of us who have it in our power to do something of value for our fellow human beings.
When we wake up each morning I suspect that most of us don’t deliberately set out to do as little as possible in the course of the day. Few of us rise from our beds, hoping to make little or no impact on the lives of others. Few of us deliberately choose to play our B-game, in hopes that we will make absolutely zero difference in the world. That’s not what we intend to do; but in the course of the day that’s often what happens.
Of course neither Saint Benedict nor Jesus demand that we be workaholics. On the other hand, there are a few basic expectations that The Lord God Almighty places upon us, and it’s up to us to make at least a feeble response.
How then do we respond to God’s call when we begin the day? For starters, I think it’s not such a bad thing to resolve to do at least one thing well, each and every day. No matter how trivial or how important, do that one thing to the best of our ability. And do it so well that it actually benefits someone. That’s a good beginning, and chances are it may not kill us.
Once we’ve incorporated one good deed into our regular routine, then try for a second. Don’t reach for a whole day’s worth of good deeds, because it just won’t happen. But if we take these opportunities incrementally, one at a time, then pretty soon we’ll notice the difference. Pretty soon there might come a time when our very presence might come to matter to the people around us. But neglect to do it, and they’ll scarcely miss us when we go on that three-hour bathroom break.
That’s why it’s good to review our A-game every morning. Don’t shoot for the moon, but aim for the possible. With just one single item try to make the world a better place, for just that one day. Why would we not want to do that? At the very very least, it’s a good alternative to sitting at our desks for days on end, dead.
+On November 10th we had our first snowfall of the season, and at over twelve inches it was a day to remember. Both the University and the Prep School were closed for the first (and I hope last) snow day of the season. Unfortunately by the end of the week we had not yet climbed above freezing, and so this snow seems destined to be with us until spring. The lakes also froze over, and by the weekend the first fishing house was out on the ice.
+On November 12th I attended and spoke briefly at a reception at Saint Agnes Hospital in Fresno, CA. The occasion was the reception of their new Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.
+The article from The Economist, to which I made reference above, is by Schumpeter, and entitled A Guide to Skiving. It appears on page 71 in the issue of October 25-31, 2014.
+On Friday November 21st the Abbey Schola will give a concert of sacred music, entitled Music of Thanksgiving. It will take place at 7:30 pm at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Medina, MN, and it will benefit the Benedictine Volunteer Corps of Saint John’s Abbey.
+I didn’t have the will to include photos of our recent snow in this post, so I decided to recall warmer times in exotic places. The photos in today’s post come from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.