Cosmic Work Required
Clearly, there is a variety of understandings of the concept of work. In each there is a sense that work is more than labor or a job. There is something beyond the mechanics, something more than, something even perhaps transcendent. Six months before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on October 26, 1967. It must be remembered that by this time he had become a major spokesperson for the Antiwar Movement in addition to his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. It has been stated that from 1957 to 1968, King traveled over 6 million miles and spoke over 2,500 times. Yet, he found the time and energy to be with the young. Why? Perhaps, it was due to his love of children and his desire and need to nurture in them a sense of their cosmic grandeur and responsibility, to help them withstand the daunting challenges that would seek to reduce them to mere pawns in a deceptive game of life, and to mentor them in what it means to be fully human. His message was enlightening regarding the sacredness of work and their duty to give that work, even menial work, an eternal sheen, glow, radiance reflecting their cosmic companions, the stars, moon, music of the universe. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: "Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well." Hear his words:
I want to ask you a question, and that is: “What is your life’s blueprint? Whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, and a building is not well erected without a good, solid blueprint. Now each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is whether you have a proper, a solid and a sound blueprint. I want to suggest some of the things that should be in your life’s blueprint. Number one in your life’s blueprint, should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”
Clearly, King was articulating a critical understanding that inner work is critical to outer work. There must be something within, some understanding, some core, strength, identity that is embraced in order to effectively and creatively sustain the self in the larger outer work of the world. There must be some appreciation for your own life, honoring what has been done in bringing you thus far on the way. Self-respect should reside within.
This inner work was an important focus for Meister Eckhart who stated: The outward work can never be small if the inward one is great, and the outward work can never be great or good if the inward is small or of little worth. Without this critical inner work one can easily fall prey to destructive behavior when cultural ideas placed on the individual are perceived as unattainable. Strain results often leading to destructive or at least “deviant” behavior.
Matthew Fox writes: The lack of a cosmology creates violence in people’s lives. This is especially true of young people, for the young have an intrinsic sense that they are citizens of a universe, of the entire home of God. If they are denied work in that home, they are denied a place in the universe itself. Such a huge and devastating loss will display itself in gratuitous violence. Violence among our young—and even the proliferation of gangs—is an effort to tell the universe: “Hey, we’re here.” It is an effort to display, to use Aquinas’s word, one’s presence and therefore one’s work. When Aquinas says that “to live well is to work well or display a good activity,” we must consider its opposite as well; when we cannot work well, we will be tempted to display a bad activity. For in a real sense we are all here to display—to put our souls forward, to put our beauty forward.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode? (Langston Hughes)
People need to be included in the important work of living and creating, indicative of having purpose and meaning. This was certainly my experience while working as a substitute teacher in the Oakland school system. Students would often rise to the occasion if they felt loved and were involved as actors, not just treated as objects.
The struggles within self, within family, and within society depicted in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun are instructive of what it means to live with a cosmology in a society without it. There is tension within the family about how to use money that they are to receive from the deceased father’s/husband’s life insurance policy. They have differing dreams. In this scene Walter is directed by Mama to speak to a representative of the white neighborhood where Mama has made a down payment on a house. The family is being offered a check of a substantial amount—that would fund Walter’s business dream—by that neighborhood’s association if the family does not move into the neighborhood.
King implants in the junior high students this essential characteristic of integrity and dignity. Fox writes again: A cosmological perspective on work can show us that all creatures in the universe have work – the galaxies and stars, trees and dolphins, grass and mountain goats, forests and clouds, chickens and elephants – all are working. The only ones out of work are human beings. The very fact that our species has invented unemployment ought to give us pause. Unemployment is not natural to the universe; it contradicts cosmic laws. It is also not healthy. That we settle for unemployment, especially when there is so much good work to be done, points up the fact that we do not live in a healthy world. By undergoing an awakening in cosmology – an awakening to the sense of the whole—we can bring about an awakening of our imaginations, which will, in turn, free us to reinvent work, create good work, cease compulsive and addictive work, and create possibilities of work for others. I think of this especially during this time of pandemic when so many are out of work, being evicted from their homes, forced to live on the streets in tents, under overpasses, in recesses of churches and other buildings. What has become of us? What type of world are we allowing to exist? How many must choose between food or rent, medicine or childcare, health or clothing? Many cannot shelter in place; for, they have no place. Why are such choices an everyday reality when the extremely wealthy have become even wealthier during this time? And, there is so much work to do. Fox continues: Wherever there are people, there are needs to be met and thus work to be done. We need to eat, to be clothed, to be educated, to be treated with affection, to be played with. We need laughter and purpose and healing. We need to be invited to stretch our minds, hearts, and imaginations, which are all, according to Thomas Aquinas, “infinite” in their capacities – infinite and therefore spiritual. In short, we all need inner work and work that opens the doors of interdependence, of wonder and of possibility. We need these things far more than we need thirty brands of toothpaste or forty styles of watches. If we paid attention to these basic needs, we would have work for everyone. When work is lacking and unemployment reigns, people learn that they are not needed in the universe. Feeling unneeded, in turn, engenders self-hatred and the deadening of the self found in alcohol and drug abuse . . . Cosmic loss causes cosmic devastation in the soul. Alcoholism and drug abuse increase with rising unemployment, not just in response to the frustration and pressure we feel when we cannot pay our bills, but also out of the spiritual torment we suffer from the message that we are not needed by the universe, that our time here will not matter—in other words, that our presence is not precious. Older people also talk of the need to “feel needed.” They too need to have work in the universe and the purpose and dignity that come with that work. Our souls are very big; they can take in the cosmos and even the news of an expanding cosmos, which is to say that like the cosmos, our souls expand. And when they are allowed no cosmic outlet, which is one of the purposes of work, our souls become cosmically dulled, cosmically wounded, and often cosmically violent. All of us want to make our contribution to the cosmic work before we leave this Earth.
There is a quiet courage that comes from an inward spring of confidence in the meaning and significance of life. Such courage is an underground river, flowing far beneath the shifting events of one's experience, keeping alive a thousand little springs of action. (Howard Thurman) Surely, Congressman John Lewis exemplified King’s message, embodying worth and dignity. Surely, his soul was attuned to the fact that his life was of ultimate significance. Surely, this inward confidence, this underground river flowed in his life with sustained commitment and power. And we and the cosmos are better because of his work and life.
John 9:4 While daylight lasts, we must be busy with the work of God; night comes, when no one can do any work. (Moffatt translation)