Maybe it’s this early spring, mucky-muck gray-sky weather we’re having in the Upper Midwest. Maybe it’s the expectation of Easter and the reality of the Cross. Maybe it’s just life, living in a world that is currently so technologically advanced and yet so morally and emotionally inept that you end up spending a lot of your days wandering around from place to place, task to task, never catching up and knowing all the while that the hourglass of your life is tick-tick-tick-tick-ticking away as you sit at red lights and wait in lines and floss and pay another bill.
I’ve found myself in that place lately from time to time, overwhelmed by the violence and disaster of the world at large, from Israel and Palestine to the earthquake in Turkey and the ongoing war in Ukraine; and overwhelmed as well by readjusting to the changing rhythm of my own and my family’s life, as I recalibrate after leaving my role as called Pastor to a particular church, as I muddle through a minor surgery recovery and also watch my parents face surgery recoveries of their own; as I watch my kids grow older and older each and every day, while I am unable to recapture the days with them gone by and equally unable to guard and protect their future.
Perhaps you can relate?
I’ve always had this intense sense that I do not want to waste my time or waste my life. I want desperately to do work that matters — to spend my time purposefully, and to hone relationships that are grounded in meaning, authenticity, and love.
The ironic part, though, is that the real meaning often comes in the minutia. The meaning — the love — comes when you realize that all of these moments are imbued with the spirit of life, the magic of respiration and energy and matter — an ecosystem that keeps on going — a teeming world that I cannot grasp in full, can only touch and feel my corner of it when I find a way to be present in the moment, right where I am, a tiny little human whose life is but a speck in the history of the world; whose life means the world to the ones who love me.
Maybe all of this is why this poem, “To be of use,” by Marge Piercy, meant so much to me today when I read an excerpt of it in my daily newsletter from the Minnesota Reformer. I’ll share it in full here below:
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
“Who do what has to be done, again and again.”
What I love most about this poem is that it honors the simple and weighty individual human life: not because of its wealth or power or influence but because of its effort and its integrity. So often the world sends us messages that our lives are worth less than others, others who might have more power or influence or wealth.
I have known so many people over my almost-38 years in this world. I have known a few famous people, some celebrities, actors, business moguls, and professional athletes. I have known many more people who are not famous at all — but who over the years have become my heroes in “work that is real.”
When I think about it, these people who I have known and who I now admire so deeply are often quite different from one another. They are not exclusive to one place or another, to one type of background or another. Many of them, I will say, are people I have known from churches. They have this deep, unshakeable integrity, and they “do what has to be done, again and again.”
This too is who I strive to be. And then on these days, I get tired because I wonder if any of it has mattered. Doing what needs to be done is not glamorous or lucrative most of the time.
Marge Piercy’s poem reminds me, though, it is this very thing — this doing what needs to be done — that changes the world and saves our lives, again and again and again.
Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. She has written for many publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and FORTUNE magazine. Denker has appeared on CNN, BBC and SkyNews to share her research on politics and Christian Nationalism in the U.S. Her book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump, was the 2019 Silver Foreword Indies award-winner for political and social sciences. The revised edition of Red State Christians, subtitled: A Journey into White Christian Nationalism and the Wreckage it leaves behind, came out Aug. 16 and is currently available everywhere books are sold.