Monday, August 16, 2010

Pentecost 12: Chutes and Blessings

He had had it. He had just had enough. He had had all he could take and then some. Enough of the rudeness. Enough of the stress. Enough of the grind. And so Steve Slater picked up the cabin microphone, announced to all on board that he quit, grabbed a beer, activated the plane’s emergency exit chute, and slide into infamy. His story (as we say in today’s world of interconnected communication) went ‘viral.’ All around the globe people weighed in. His frustration resonated with millions and millions of workers everywhere who are just plain tired of the daily grind and the toll it takes on each one of us.

You may recall that some time ago in a sermon I talked about the concept of emotional labor - first described in a 1983 book by Arlie Hochschild called The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling. Studying airline flight attendants and debt collectors, Hochschild wondered about the price a worker pays to present the company’s emotion rather than one’s own authentic feeling. For flight attendants, the emotional demand is to be ever pleasant and courteous, even in the face of galling rudeness. For debt collectors, it is to strike an angry, compassionless, and judgmental tone, even in the face of heartbreaking human struggle.

Much of today’s work falls under the umbrella of the notion of emotional labor. In years gone by, an honest day’s work would have worn you out physically. Today’s work wears us out emotionally. In the process we become disconnected from our self; at first by suppressing our true feelings, but over time by repressing them. In our non-work time, either we are emotional zombies or all the stuff we were not allowed to feel and express at work comes flooding out in the other arenas of our life.
Add to this diminishing pay, shrinking benefits, the growing cost of the daily basics, more demands, less rewards, more pressure, less security, and it is no wonder that Steve Slater is a folk hero to many. I have only read an article or two about the incident. I have not seen Slater on TV or listened to any discussion about him. So based only on my limited exposure to this story, it seems to me people are wrestling with a fundamental question: what does this mean, given that millions of people have had such a deep, visceral response to his actions? What draws the masses to the act of this one individual?

And that is a good question to be asking. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus points out the irony of a culture’s ability to discern the weather while being completely unable to discern the meaning of the times. Since Jesus’ day we have developed amazing technology to forecast the weather, but we still struggle to see the bigger picture. It is so hard to understand the times in which we live while we live within them.

When I read about Steve Slater I immediately thought of a film called Baraka, a word in Sufi that means “the thread which weaves life together.” Ron Fricke, the film’s director, intended it to be “a guided mediation on humanity.” I want to show you two chapters from the film that will take about 7 minutes to watch. The first chapter is called “City and Industry” and the second “Chickens.” There are no words, just visual images. As you watch ponder what these images suggest about life today, about work, and about the state of our humanity.

[portions of the chapters we watched can be found on YouTube by searching for 'Baraka']

Here are a few things that come to me from what we have seen:

I am struck by the rhythm of the city; suggesting that while each one of us is free to live life as we choose, the modern world has a way of funneling us into patterns which feel forced and predictable and anything but free.

I am stunned by the industrialization of chickens. Their worth has been reduced to one single thing… the thing they do that is deemed to have value; namely lay eggs. Everything about their environment has been tailored to leverage that value and anything thought to detract from it has been removed. Isn’t that same methodology being used on human labor? Isn’t that what the manufacturing scenes suggest?

One final image comes from the fast-forward view in the commuter terminal. Of all the motion and activity, my eye gets drawn toward the two people who stop to have a conversation. Every other person is a blur of motion, but these two people, standing and talking, come into focus. What does this suggest about what it means to be human and the value of connecting with another person?

Given all of this, what discernment do you make of the times in which we live? Isn’t it summed up in the face of the screaming man and in the chute descending slide of Steve Slater? God the Creator has endowed each person with the dignity of humanity, and yet we live in a time when the very essence of our humanity is under assault.

Let me close by presenting a different vision of what it means to be human and to engage in labor. It is not a quick fix or an easy answer, but it is life-giving in these dark times. It comes in the form of a blessing written by John O’Donohue. He was a Roman Catholic priest for a while, a writer, a theologian, and something of a mystic before dying in 2008 at the age of 52. O’Donohue believed that God can be found both in the inner wisdom of our soul as well as in the unfolding drama of the day. Being aware of both and paying attention to how they intersect was for him the key to being fully human and faithful. He wrote a book of blessings and I close with this one, his blessing for work. Listen closely and see if you hear in it a vision of what your life and labor might be:

May the light of your soul guide you.

May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the secret love and warmth of your heart.

May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.

May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work.

May your work never weary you.

May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration, and excitement.

May you be present in what you do.

May you never become lost in the bland absences.

May the day never burden you.

May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.

May you go into the night blessed, sheltered, and protected.

May your soul calm, console, and renew you.