The Work of our Hands

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Dear readers,

Everybody reading this column knows the history. As our ability to automate expanded exponentially there was a threshold that was reached. Instead of simply opening up new and less monotonous economic opportunities, all sorts of economic opportunities began to disappear. Instead of a wide variety of people involved in the production of goods and services, productive human labor retreated to the creative arts, media and politics. There were few other places where humans could compete with the growing minds of computers. The arguments over values and the sharing of fundamentally human stories were the few islands left for us to work. It’s why I’m an independent journalist. My parents saw this trend coming and guided me towards a profession many thought was dead.

At the same time, economic capital gathered in the arms of those who owned the world of automation. There was a dramatic pooling of wealth in the hands of relatively few people. And because automated systems were at work, automated systems that raised tremendous barriers of entry for those who did not have them, the marketplace became increasingly static.

But people weren’t left without incomes. The cost of that decision was understood. There were no shortages. To address the allocation of goods, funds were simply reallocated to the masses of the population who had no actual jobs. The thought was that these people would be materially well off and able to access food, shelter, healthcare and the fourth pillar of our modern age: entertainment.

The effort was not a success. Vast tracts of our cities turned into slums. People in slums 30 years ago had cable TV, but that didn’t address the ills of their communities. That model simply spread. Drug use, the breakdown of families, the cultivation of jealousy, widespread crime, mass shootings, and the laser focus on individual honor – all of these things became the norm throughout our societies.

We lived in plenty. We didn’t work. And we were destroying ourselves as a result. We all knew it. We all watched our world crumbling in excess.

And then, out of nowhere, came the Work of Our Hands.

It seemed the antidote to everything. People gather in groups. And they just start talking. And then this collaborative spark rushes into the room, like a gift from above. And then, all of a sudden, people are pitching in and making something. The computers might be faster. They have no material need to create. But the action speaks something fundamental in our humanity. We work in the image of G-d, as creators. And nobody takes credit. That is an iron rule. Honor and fairness are left to the side. And they bring something new into being. Often, it is mundane, but sometimes it is world-changing. But the matter the outcome, it is always fulfilling.

More importantly, it was given new life to human society.

We all thought it was a spontaneous movement, inevitably born of our social ills. But it was not spontaneous. It was all started by a man, a founder. It took me years to work out who he is – he takes no credit, he shows up in no news stories. The one man who rescued our world is anonymous.

But he not without history. It was, while digging, that I discovered the remarkable story that made him who he is. It is not grand, it is intensely human in scale. Nonetheless, it has reshaped our world.

I’m going to share it the way I learned it, through an interview with his parents.

Let me start by setting the scene. Of course, I’m not using real names. But let’s go with Jim and Alison. These two have been married for almost 40 years. They are both in their late 60s. They live in a modest, but beautiful, home in Washington State. They have all the knickknacks you’d expect of an old married couple. Nothing about their home is spectacular. Nothing is sparkly and minimalist and new. It is worn, and weathered. But not in a worn out way. Instead, it is simply comforting. When I arrived, Alison ushered me to a couch in the living room and Jim got me a cup of coffee. And then they sat down opposite me. They worked so smoothly together that they were like two arms of the same creature. They were a bit different though. Alison’s voice betrayed an underlying layer of excitement, although she was far from tripping over her words. Jim’s voice was stable and smooth. He shared some sense of internal power – but not the kind that imposes on those around him.

Both of them were ready for a conversation, but this had been a hard conversation to get. They were very reluctant to talk to a journalist, you’ll see why. Only their son’s recommendation got me through the door.

Here is the transcript:

Me: “I’d like to start near the beginning of your story. Can you tell me about how you met?”

Alison: “A friend introduced us in the 2000s. Jim was in finance, I was in marketing. They thought we’d be a good fit. And we were.”

Jim: “Yes, we were. We very quickly worked out we had very similar values. We were both ambitious and smart and we both expected to be successful people.”

Me: “What do you mean by that?”

Alison: “Let me just tell you what it was like for us. Because we lived our dreams and so it’s easiest to illustrate them that way. First, our careers just took off. Jim was making huge sums of money and I wasn’t doing too badly either. Even in those days finance and media were the key. People knew we were the types to be successful and success followed expectation. We bought a huge house. We joked that we had to, because people expected it. We redecorated it, beautifully. We had tremendous parties. We were living what was called the Facebook life. Everything was perfect. Except it wasn’t just perfect online, it was real.”

Me: “This seems like an odd start for your son. He’s not into media, finance or the Facebook life. It took me years to figure out he even existed.”

Alison: “Oh, I know. Things changed.”

Jim: “But before they changed, they were still very good. We weren’t some aloof types. We were involved in community organizations. People came to us for advice. We were deeply respected. It was all going very well.”

Me: “You said ‘was’? Things changed?”

Jim: “Yes. It did. Things were perfect for about the first five years. And then things began to slip.”

Me: “They slipped?”

Alison: “Let me tell you. Our friends were jealous of our relationship, and of our success. And we were proud of what we’d accomplished. So we did the charitable thing. We decided to help others follow in our footsteps. It was a good thing to do, right? That’s what we thought. So, we decided to write a book together, about the technique that made everything pop.”

Me: “What technique?”

Jim: “We called it The Assigned Life. It was all about careful, perfect delineation. Each of us was responsible for certain, well-defined, things. We knew who was responsible for what and who could take credit for what. And so, aside from initially assigning tasks, we didn’t fight. We just laid out our issues and went through them logically and solved them.”

Me: “Sounds like a good technique, although not exactly a match with your son’s values.”

Alison: “That’s why we wanted to write the book! But the book just opened up a can of words.”

Alison sniggers at her own joke. It hardly seems like the affection of a successful marketing executive.

Me: “How?”

Jim: “Working together meant that we had to figure out how to assign a whole new group of things out. One of the first questions was the question of credit. Whose name would go first on the cover? Who would get credit for each idea in the book? How would we delineate everything? We came up with solutions. We alternated name orders on the front and back covers. Each chapter had an author identified so the reader knew who wrote it. And if an idea in a chapter came from the other author, credit was given. Like ‘Jim points out this or that.’”

Alison: “That’s exactly how we did it. We sat down and worked it out. And one of us had a great idea, we could share how we did it in the book itself. The book would be a case study about how couples could flourish while collaborating.”

Jim: “We wrote up the book and then we pitched it. And one of the first agents we queried picked it up and one of the first publishers they talked to agreed to publish it. It was very fast.”

Me: “Wow.”

Alison: “It was wow. We were touching a nerve. People wanted what we were pitching. And the pre-sales were great! We were on track for the New York Times bestseller list. We did our first radio interview, on a local station, before it was even published. I remember the interviewer asked us a rather pointed question. He said, ‘how good is your marriage, really?’”

Jim: “I remember laughing, politely. We said things were great, otherwise we wouldn’t have published the book. He took that answer, happily and we moved right along.”

Alison: “But cracks were beginning to show.”

Jim: “They were. We fought later that night. We fought about who spoke more and got more attention during the interview. We fought about which of us seemed to be the primary force behind the book itself. It settled down, but it wasn’t resolved.”

Alison: “It couldn’t be. The credit wasn’t in our hands. We couldn’t just divvy things up 50-50 and define what 50-50 was. The interviewer could do whatever they wanted. We thought about asking the interviewers to be balanced in advance, but we worried about the image that’d project. So, we didn’t.”

Jim: “We did many more interviews – on TV and radio and in print. We tried to control things. We tried to lay out who would answer what and how. Afterwards, we’d always end up accusing each other of being attention hogs. The entire time, the interviewers kept asking that question, ‘how strong is your marriage, really?’ I think they expected their show to get some scoop that all was not well in paradise.”

Alison: “And things did get worse. Eventually, we began to wrangle a bit – on air. But that was okay. We thought on our feet and one of us explained that this sort of discussion was an ideal opportunity to show the audience how we addressed challenges. We could reveal our technique, live. But, of course, we kept having the same fight. We weren’t resolving anything. We couldn’t let go of the little stuff.”

Jim: “Of course, the big stuff didn’t go away.”

Alison: “No, it isn’t. The book stayed on the bestseller lists and we realized we could expand on what we’d done. We just had to work out how.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Alison: “Well, one of us wanted to do a call-in show of our own. The other wanted to do a workshop, which we could franchise. And we argued about it. Who would do the curriculum? Who would host? How would we share credit on the fly if we were trying to solve caller’s problems? And our, um, interactions, began to go beyond what our book talked about. Things began to get heated, really heated.”

Jim: “I thought she was taking all the credit and she thought I was. And I thought my ideas were core to our success. And she thought hers were. Who had done more to get us to #1? Who had gotten us on TV? Who had had the best ideas? We couldn’t settle any of it. Everything was falling apart.”

Alison: “Everything was falling apart. But not in public. The promotion was going great. The media loved watching us work things out. They loved the honesty of it and the commitment it showed. But they didn’t realize we weren’t really working anything out.”

Jim: “Then we did the national TV interview. It was on a morning program, one of the big ones. It was live. And things got out of hand. The interviewer asked, ‘how strong is your marriage, really?’ And we ended up getting into an argument about the answer-“

Alison: “-Yeah, I was sick of him giving the same BS answer every time.”

Jim: “That’s right. And the argument turned into a fight. And the fight turned into a real fight.”

Alison: “A real fight. On national TV. Between two people billed as marriage experts. I was sitting next to him on the couch. And we were shouting at each other. And then I just jumped him and started swinging.”

Jim: “I didn’t know what to do. I was angry, very angry, but I couldn’t really fight back. That might land me in jail. I grabbed a cushion from the couch and started batting her away and then I went on the offensive and attacked her with it.”

Alison: “This wasn’t meant to be that kind of show. It was one of those happy drink a coffee things. So, the producers cut short the program and the guards dragged us apart. It was spectacular. And our sales spiked, sort of in morbid fascination – for a few days. But then they dropped suddenly and interview offers disappeared. And then we went back home, angry at each other and plenty willing to share the credit for screwing things up.”

Jim: “Success has many fathers, failure none.”

Alison: “That’s right. And we knew there would be no workshops, no call-in shows. Nothing. Just like that, it was all gone.”

Jim: “It didn’t stop there though. Our friends abandoned us. Our communities abandoned us. We lost their respect. Our careers were fine-“

Alison: “My career improved. As some people saw it, I had marketed a lie, beautifully. So long as nobody knew I was working for them, I was golden.”

Jim: “That’s true. Alison’s career was fine, but everything else blew up.”

Alison: “And so we filed for divorce. The reason was simple: ‘Irreconcilable differences.’”

Jim: “Irreconcilable: meaning even we couldn’t work them out. Which we couldn’t. By that time, we were looking forward to our freedom.”

Alison: “We were. We needed to move on.”

Me: “So what happened? None of this seems like a promising start for your son.”

Alison: “I got pregnant.”

Me: “How? I thought you were at war.”

Alison: “The whole book thing happened very very quickly. And because of all the excitement, I didn’t notice everything I should have.”

Me: “Did you think about abortion?”

Alison: “Oh, yes.”

Jim: “We both thought that we couldn’t possibly bring a kid into the middle of this divorce. The environment was poisonous and we knew it. Somehow, we found a way to fight about this too. I actually blamed hormones for what had gone wrong. We got our lawyers involved. Weeks passed. And then we argued about whether it was morally too late to abort.”

Alison: “And we just never really got there. And I went into labor. On schedule.”

Jim: “I was there for the birth of my son. After all, he was my son. It was about eventual custody and, really, it was about ownership of the child. I wasn’t giving her anything I didn’t need to. Our lawyers even fought about it. I won and I was there.”

Alison: “And it changed things.”

Jim: “That it did.”

Me: “How?”

Alison: “When the nurses put my new baby in my arms, I just thought – ‘what a miracle’. I mean, I knew all about hormones after giving birth. But this seemed different to me, genuinely different. I looked at the kid and I could just see that he was good, whatever that meant.”

Jim: “And I saw the look on her face. That look of total contentment. She wasn’t taking credit then. She wasn’t glaring at me. She wasn’t robbing me of something that was mine. She was just amazed by what had been created. And I realized there was another way. There had to be.”

Me: “What happened next.”

Jim: “I remembered our first date.”

Me: “Your first date?”

Jim: “Before we met, we were both living in New York. At the time, all of our friends tried to come up with really clever things to do – so things would work out perfectly. It was a point of pride. There was a new park going in, called the Low Line. It was in an historical trolley terminal that had been fitted with specialized skylights to bring sunlight to the plants – underground. I managed to snag the rights to plant a tree in the park. And when my friends said Alison was worth it, I decided to use that one-off date on her. It would show that I was a VIP in waiting.”

Alison: “And I was definitely impressed. The Low Line staff led us underground, while the park was still being built. It was like an exclusive part of the City was available to Jim alone. But it was more than impressive. It was magical. I still remember planting the tree and patting down the roots around the freshly embedded roots. It was just an incredible experience.”

Jim: “I thought it was all about how much I’d impressed her. I thought the tree planting itself was a bit tacky. After all, we were practical people. What mattered wasn’t that we’d planted a tree, but that I’d managed to snag the rights to plant one underground.”

Alison: “We both had the same takeaway. I think both of us wanted the attraction to be that Jim had gotten us into the Low Line. Anything else would have really shaken things up.”

Jim: “We both agreed, without needing to talk about it, about why the date was incredible. We’d tell people the story, and the emphasis was always on how exclusive the experience was. Not just anybody could do what we’d done. And I wouldn’t have done it for just anybody. But when I saw my son, I realized that I’d the planting had been the point. That had been the magical part. The two of us had created something, together – and in a place that was so resistant to life.”

Alison: “Almost like a new baby in a divorce.”

Jim: “Exactly.”

Alison: “And so I was holding my new baby and I heard Jim saying ‘remember that tree.’ And I did. And just like him, I suddenly knew what it had really been about.”

Jim: “We realized, almost simultaneously, that we had had everything backward. Together, without even meaning to, we could create a miracle. We could create a life. And we didn’t need the credit to get the rush. In fact, just then, getting the credit would have gotten in the way.”

Alison: “It put everything into context. With that insight, I realized the book itself had kind of been a success. It showed us that we, even when we had to fight about everything, could do amazing things. We could write a best seller about relationships. Just imagine what we could do if we didn’t need to litigate everything we did.”

Jim: “We just realized the awesome power that kind of relationship could have.”

Alison: “And it all started with that tree. Something we did together.”

Jim: “We decided, then and there, not to divorce. It just kind of came out, together.”

Alison: “We actually said it at exactly the same time.”

Alison: “And I realized he was really there to meet his son, not claim him. And so, I turned the boy, just a bit, to display him to Jim. And Jim came over. And he leaned over and kissed the boy on the forehead. And then he kissed me exactly the same way.”

Jim: “And things just grew from there.”

Alison: “That’s right. Our trajectory changed.”

Jim: “It wasn’t perfect all of a sudden. We just started moving in a better direction. We couldn’t just reinvent ourselves in an instant, even if we were figuring out who we really were. We just saw there was something worth saving. Something worth serving. It was bigger than either of us, and it made us bigger.”

Alison: “Oh, I’ll be all poetic about it. There was a wellspring of fulfillment waiting for us.”

Jim: “That wellspring was greater because we shared it. We didn’t just do more, our experience was magnified by doing it together.”

Alison: “I accomplished more by allowing Jim to act through me.”

Jim: “And the same was true for me; enabling Alison unlocked my own potential.”

Me: “And this is the environment your son was raised in?”

Alison: “That it was. He was a lot of work and not a whole lot of reward, at first. But then he became the greatest reward of all. He was good. And unlike us, he wasn’t in to finance or marketing. He was into, I guess not surprisingly, forestry. He loved trees. That’s why we came out here – because he wanted to plant and to harvest them.”

Me: “And then he founded Work of our Hands.”

Alison paused and smiled, contentedly.

Alison: “He had to grow and mature of course. But when the time came, he planted the seed. Of course, the soil was already rich.”

When you look at Work of our Hands, and the transformation it has bought, it is easy to imagine it all comes down to the inexorable movement of massive social forces.

But, in reality, it all began with the planting of a single tree.

As you create, as you build, as you act in the image of G-d – remember that you aren’t simply scratching a creative itch. You are, quite possibly, planting the seeds for a future reborn.

In keeping with the credit-seeking rule, the founder’s identity hasn’t been shared and his parents have used their right to privacy to remove the old videos of their once famous fight from the Internet. Don’t bother looking.

The Torah reading of Eikev is a continuation of Moshe’s great speech. In this installment, Moshe teaches us about the power of relationships.

The reading starts with a promise that G-d will love the people and because of that love they will be blessed with a miraculous reality. They will have no sickness or barrenness or lack of crops. And no enemies will be able to threaten them. The Torah reading continues with a challenge. It claims the 40 years in the desert weren’t a punishment, but a test. A test to demonstrate that our ‘marriage’ to G-d was strong. As the Torah says: “He afflicted you… so you might know that man does not live by bread alone, but from everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Dev 8:3)

We live by listening to the voice of G-d.

But the message won’t take. It is clear from the text that the marriage is not strong. When we do well in the land, we take credit for all of our successes. “You will say in your heart: my strength and the might of hand has gotten me this wealth.” (Dev 8:17)

This claim threatens our blessed reality. We don’t grasp the limits of the concrete.

This lesson is emphasized with the promise of the Anakim. The Anakim were famous for their might and their fortifications which reached the heavens. But they were to be destroyed almost instantaneously. They, like Pharoah before them, would show us the limits of material power.

Moshe continues by showing us that we have made progress. He goes back to the story of the Sin of the Calf. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Sin of the Calf was one of collective self-worship. The golden idol was formed of the earrings of the community. It represents the power formed by community-relationships themselves. The people worship the calf by playing. They make it clear, then, that they are worshiping themselves. They imagined they had brought themselves out of Egypt, they erased the role of G-d. They grasped that they could grasp and failed to understand the power of the immaterial.

But Moshe counteracts their sin. He replaces the divine Ten Commandments, written by the finger of G-d, with very human Ten Commandments. These are housed in a wooden box. The gold of the Aron Kodesh (holy ark) is not mentioned. Instead, Shittim trees, literally ‘grudge trees’ are used to contain the divine commandments.

Moshe’s repair is to put the human into the relationship. He doesn’t do this to give the Children of Israel credit. It does it so that they can contribute to the relationship, credit withstanding. By building upwards they can be fulfilled by the blessings of the relationship with G-d. After all, man does not live by bread alone.

Throughout this part of Moshe’s speech, there is a confusion of timelines. Sins are mixed, cause and effect are mixed. Moshe keeps ascending the mountain and it is unclear when he does this. All of this suggests that even time isn’t as material as we imagine it to be. Just as Jim and Alison’s marriage was saved by the planting of a tree – long before they considered divorce – the Jewish people’s relationship is continually saved by the interventions of Moshe and by his efforts to have us contribute to the relationship with G-d.

The reading continues with the core of Moshe’s lesson. Our mission does not end with acknowledging g-d. Instead, we are commanded to circumcise our hearts (Dev 10:16). Our hearts pump our blood, they give our physical bodies their potential. Circumcision, remove the block from divine guidance. We remove our resistance to G-d’s commandments. We allow G-d’s will to be expressed through us. The result is not a lack of satisfaction. It is not G-d taking from us. The very next verse states “[He] does not lift up faces or take reward.” As I read it, he does not steal reputation or the benefits of His gifts.

Instead, as with the Work of Hands society, the result is true and lasting fulfillment.

The reading ends with another series of blessings. But they contain a warning. The land we are entering is not like Egypt, which is irrigated by the foot. The foot represents a man’s will. The land we are entering does not fulfill our needs just because we put the effort in. No, this land is a land which drinks the waters of heaven. (Dev 11:10-11)

It is only by following G-d’s commandments and loving Him with all of our heart and all of our soul that we can be blessed. (Dev 11:13)

As with Jim and Alison, there is a power in the relationship. It is a power that is made all the greater when we cut away the short-term desires of our hearts.

We only experience true fulfillment when we allow our relationships with each other, and our relationships with G-d, to guide us through our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

This story is in memory of a man I know only through a conversation in an airport. This man loved to work with his hands; he had a job in finance, but left it for something more hands-on. He found fulfillment in his work, and he worked hard. Perhaps too hard. He died recently, and prematurely, of a sudden onset auto-immune disease. Sadly, he didn’t always have the benefit of sharing his fulfillment with another.

From the story I heard from his friend, he did find love in the last year of his life.

It is my hope that he found true fulfillment as well.

Image: By Airman 1st Class Christopher Tam (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/644519) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (www.CityontheHeights.com), a thriller about creating hope from war.

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