Sunday, February 23, 2014

Holistic Efficiency

Here's a puzzle. Guess the word for each of the following definitions:

  1. The feeling or tendency of not wanting to work hard or be active.
  2. The body's innate desire to conserve energy.
  3. The pleasurable feeling of performing a task efficiently.
  4. The skill of minimizing exertion and strain.

Our language has many options for #1: sloth, shiftlessness, laziness. But what words do we have for the other three? Industrial culture - American culture in particular - places an enormous amount of value on power, speed, industry; and disparages passivity and rest; to the point that we have no appropriate words for the good that comes from conserving the body and its energy.

Being no stranger to sloth, let me be the first to admit that it has done me no good. Neither have gluttony, lust, pride, greed, envy, or wrath. Yet hunger, sexual desire, self-respect, material desire, admiration, and anger have all done me much good and are in my belief healthy, natural, and God-given. So it is also with this apparently nameless animal desire which, in excess, manifests itself as sloth.

This desire performs an essential biological function. It enables us to work for food without burning more calories than the food will provide. It's why lions lounge in the sun, why squirrels mostly stay in their nests during winter, why deer travel the same worn paths over and over. This desire, and the pleasure that comes from satisfying it, is healthy, natural, and God-given. But as with all such desires and all such pleasures, it can become an addiction.

Like all addicts, the slothful get less and less pleasure the more they partake. Resting after a day's hard work is immensely satisfying, as is doing work in a way that minimizes strain and exertion. But just like eating a whole pack of Cheez-Its or Oreos in one sitting, lounging all day never turns out as satisfying as one might expect. Let us never say that sloth is a virtue, but let us also refrain from throwing out the good with the bad. Sloth is a vice, but there is a virtue that comes about from the redemption of slothful nature - and it's not industry.

Industry may be the polar opposite of laziness, but industry (as the march of history continues to show) can be at least as destructive, usually more. Industrial culture praises ambition and overwork. It is believed that one should make as much money as possible, stopping neither when needs are met nor when destruction (of self, family, community, land, atmosphere) begins. To make less money than one could, to own less than one could, is a failing.

And yet we also are a culture that disparages manual labor and is known for obesity - we are both lazy and industrious, but sorely lacking in the virtue that lies somewhere in between. I'll call it "holistic efficiency".

What does a holistically efficient person look like?

This is quite distinct from industrial efficiency, which maximizes one or two variables and disregards any others. Holistically efficient work might take more time, but unlike industrially efficient work, it never thoughtlessly destroys anything (neither family nor planet nor body). In the long run, in the big picture, it is more efficient.

I keep mentioning farmers - this is partly because I am a farmer myself, but also because I have seen certain farmers exhibit holistic efficiency better than anyone else I know. The first farmer I worked for, Dr. Greg, scolded me several times for doing work that was unnecessary or doing it in an unnecessarily straining way. The best farmers can brag simultaneously about how much they enjoy their work, and how little of it they must do. They advocate manual labor while advocating its minimization. They work hard and rest comfortably. They are embodying the paradox, inviting all into eternity's great harmonious dance.

Come into the life of the body, the one body
granted to you in all the history of time.
Come into the body's economy, its daily work,
and its replenishment at mealtimes and at night.
Come into the body's thanksgiving, when it knows
and acknowledges itself a living soul.
Come into the dance of the community, joined
in a circle, hand in hand, the dance of the eternal
love of women and men for one another
and of neighbors and friends for one another.

—Wendell Berry, "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union"

To deal with laziness, one must not fight against it. Instead, redirect it. Refocus that desire toward healthful ends. The satisfaction sought will be greatest when the hunger is allowed to exist and serve its true purpose, keeping the body in divine ecological balance.