Sometimes life just springs with the sudden feeling of what Tao Yuanming (陶淵明) expresses with these words in the preface to the poem “Guiqulai Xi Ci” 《歸去來兮辭》:
For this I was disappointed and upset;
I was conscience-stricken as to my whole life’s intent.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! Perhaps it’s because I did what everyone else did, sacrificing principle and enslaving myself to mouth and belly. Or perhaps I’ve started on a path only to realize that I don’t know what the point is, whether the work has any more than the incidental value of tending, though not by any rightly accorded benefits, to the needs of my mouth and belly. I can’t just continue into a job track like this.
False purpose of education
I do not deny that education, true learning, is worth its cost. It is inherently valuable even without the side benefits of prestige and the path to higher social status and wealth. But I question the purposes that the students around me have not questioned. I object to them, and I don’t care anymore whether it sounds judgemental to call it shallow to pursue the goals that typically drive students to study.
Even if starvation and cold are cutting,
it is by violating myself that I fall ill.
I realize this is easy for me to say as someone who’s always been in the American middle class, because only my parents have known poverty’s sparseness. At any rate, for me it’s never been about the money itself. If it were money I wanted, I could do much better than an academic salary. But what good is it to want to teach the mind for life when students want to learn only what they need for a job and additionally whatever seems passingly interesting or “practical” to them? Can I fight the system?
The system’s broken. Once there were universities, and now there are tertiary degree-granting institutions that spit out their students with some prestige and some overspecialized training. People are pushed into things without being equipped. The job becomes the idol, and nothing else — not the mind’s growth in the excellent and noble, not the love of honourable marriage, not strong and rooted community — can overcome its demands, because it alone demands its own preparation and then saps other things of it. For a better-paying job a man will uproot himself, if he was rooted to begin with. This I cannot praise.
When was the last time you heard of someone you knew learning simply for living life — unless “job” had become life itself in the endless pursuit of more? Yes, one can live a good life without being in the upper middle class, we can be sure of that, but those blessed with leisure and greater capacity for contemplation are obligated to use its leisure for their own sanctification and for the edification of all, rather than for more material comfort. Is this illegitimate? Only in a society that has already fallen for the deceptions of the American dream, of social mobility being more important than faithfulness to what is right.
What to do?
How am I to work within this? God loves people driven to prostitution in their dire circumstances, but will it please Him to become a pimp to reach pimps and whores? No! He would have us work without becoming part of the brothel. One dilemma that keeps me busy, then, is whether the university as it is now has already become this, a brothel where students are deceived, whether the administration knows it or not, into whoring themselves to the institution in return for petty change, even if this petty change is six figures or more.
I cannot work without knowing there is an inherent value to the work. It must do at least these two things:
- help make me a better person more filled with God’s thoughts and intentions.
- be useful to society, whether materially or not, by its real results and not the things, e.g. possessions and prestige, artificially attached to it.
If something does not satisfy these conditions, it is a waste of time. If so, either I must learn to do it to the Lord[*] in full honesty, or, if it cannot serve God’s redeemed purpose, I must cut it off. A waste collector can do this, as can a physician or theologian or philosopher. Tao Yuanming’s poem tells the reader,
I realize that what is already gone cannot be admonished,
but I know that what is to come can be sought after.
In truth, in straying from the path I was never too far,
and understand that today I am right, and yesterday was wrong.
I’m never too far from what God wants for Him to still use me. It does not, however, tell me of the path to take. The answer has eluded me so far, but the Lord of truth must give me an answer, or I will not go on. I await resolution: will my job be in linguistics or something else?
[*] To do it to the Lord in reality as well as in intent. It must honour God by virtue of what it is and not only because we say it’s “for God”.