A woman I know who recently returned from a visit to France described to me the feelings she's has on viewing the cathedrals of Chartres and Reims. The immensity, the dimmness, and particularly the distance between the alter and the faithful had shocked and appalled her. That the cathedrals' builders should be relegated to such a humble position she found to be an amazing supression of the human spirit.
I've always felt quite the opposite. That the craftsman produced work of such indisputable quality with no expectation of recognition has always filled me with awe.
Awe: It is a word now in vogue. Indeed, belonging to the Me Generation precludes the awareness necessary to experience ti. But it is an emotion with its own very awesome potential.
The cathedral builders, no doubt, were in awe of their God, which infused their work with meaning. If you object to the religious nature of my example, secularize it: The guildsmen of the Middle Ages produced work of similar quality. They, perhaps, were in awe of perfection.
I am a member of the baby boom's vast army of liberal-arts graduates, many of whom have been forced to take jobs for which they are overqualified, or that have nothing to do with their speicalization. A lot of the people thus employed do not like what they are doing, do not do it well, and have no idea what they perfer doing.
There's another phenomenon I've noticed: There's no sense of profession among these people. Lacking a profession with which to identify, they are unable or willing to respect any profession. They speak gliby of performing x or y, neither aware of nor interested in the intricacies of x or y profession.
I am a free-lance copy editor. It is not the employment I ever considered while studying French in college, but it is one I have come to be good at and which I love. It is with great chagrin that I hear the word "edit" bandied about by those who feel that the only qualifications necessary are two sharp blue pencils and a sense of what "sounds right."
Remember the shudder that went through your hairstylist the last time you mentioned the home perm your girl friend gave you? Or your auto mechanic when he saw the blob of Stop-Leak with which you tried to plug your radiator? w
The French have a saying -- "Il n' y a point de sot metier ." Loosley translated, it means that there are no ignoble professions. We can all take pride in what we do. Consider the secretary: the order brought to the gnarled chaos of a handwritten manuscript, the coherence made of misspelling, the gentle redirection of jumbled word order. The breathtaking, cohesive quality about the organization of the flies: a closed system, autonomous, self-sustaining, at equilibrium.
There is a beauty in a neatly typed manuscript, as there is in a Gothic cathedral. And the residual benefits of producing either are considerable. In adhering to an absolute set of values we are freed from the whimsy of arbitrary, external judgement. And for most, work, an absolute set of values does exist.
A well-fitted pipe does not leak; a well-typed letter is one without typographical errors. Quality is the transcedent something even nonbelievers can believe in.
We can't always get the work we'd like: Consider poor Sisyphus! Condemned by the gods to pushing a rock up a hill only to have it fall back again, he symbolizes for Albert Camus man in a world without meaning. But that cockeyed optimist of an existentialist, Camus, sees him happy as he starts back up the long climb. Sisyphus doesn't love his rock; he doesn't love the hill -- but in his dedication to his very steady employment he finds a measure of satisfaction.
One last quote: "Don't shoot for the stars and settle for a whoops." When we were kids, my friends and I came up with that while playing some game of skill involving shooting a marble up a graded chute. The top slot was called "the stars" and the bottom "whoops."
We didn't know it then, but we were saying something about quality and mediocrity. If you can't do the work you love, love the work you do.