One Word After Another

Yesterday I wrote 3000 words. That brings it up to (quick calculation) about 5500 for the week, which is quite a lot.

I have just passed the half-way mark on a new book of essays, one that's been driving me batty almost since the first sentence I wrote: I have so little faith in this stuff, and it's been such hard and painful work. I'd rather the whole thing just coiled itself up like a hoop and rolled away. But it's promised work, and I have to do it. Every now and again, a piece decides to write itself; that happened yesterday, a four-hour concentrated binge in which all sorts of stuff emerged. I think the latest piece isn't too bad, although it will need revision. And now I feel almost too tired and written-out to put one word in front of another.

People seem to feel that other people (never themselves, of course!) aren't disciplined enough: they aren't willing to work at things. They'll start a project, get bored with it and wander off in search of something more entertaining instead of staying with the project and slogging it out. People seem to feel that this is especially true of marriage: that most marriages that fail do so because the partners just aren't willing to work hard enough. We need the stick of Duty, or nothing of value would ever be accomplished; thatís the Duty model.

And it does have a point. Children do have to be told that they have to finish project A before they can take on project B, peas before dessert; and I suppose quite a number of physically full-grown people are really children who need to hear this. For them, maybe we do need the stick of Duty, or at least of Authority, because they still lack the inner discipline to complete what they've started. Also, this is indeed a culture of quick results and instant gratification, one in which patience and persistence are boring old fuddy-duddy. And I too have long-abandoned half-finished knitting projects stowed away in plastic bags at the back of the upstairs hall closet. So there's certainly validity in the Duty model.

But whenever I think of it, the Duty model feels subtly off. At its extreme, the Duty model thinks extremely poorly of human nature; it instances our worst behaviour and says "that's what counts; that's what we have to work with" - rather like those who selectively target the unworthy poor (or, for that matter, the unworthy rich), ignoring the worthy ones, and yip "See? These people are just lazy no-good bums who need a swift kick in the keister!" It's refreshingly easy and gratifying to think the worst of others - to take it for granted that what most people really need is a few weeks in boot camp and then we'd see a lot less of this wussy whining and irresponsibility..

What's wrong with this picture? Think of parenthood. As any parent knows, raising kids involves an enormous wallop of self-discipline and a fair number of sacrifices, not to mention sleep deprivation and a lot of cleaning up other people's bodily wastes. So surely, if the Duty model holds, the majority of parents would be doing their level best to get out of changing diapers and would have to be strong-armed into sitting through school talent nights, right? But in fact, that's not the case. With some sad or horrible exceptions, most parents are really pretty good parents, although some are more stressed and less knowledgeable than others. Overwhelmingly, they're willing to do their best for their kids. And why? Love. Not just love, but the most generous sort of love, love that gives over and over and over again, even in exhaustion, purely for the other's sake with no more reward than a baby's smile.

There are two equal and opposite errors here: that love doesn't require discipline; and that discipline can somehow stand in for love. But if you have any sort of vocation, from contract bridge to caring for the dying, you know that neither is properly true. You're going to need that sense of Duty to get you through the times when Love's dozing or out of sorts. But Duty without any love at all isn't a Good Thing; it is but a clanging cymbal or a sounding brass. And it tends to be resentful, and to take its resentment out on innocent bystanders..

I'm not sure that you can call something Love if it lacks a certain stability, loyalty, consistency, reliability, honesty. We may feel all warm and loving, but if it doesn't translate into something that the object of our affections can count on, is it really Love, or is it just our own enjoyment of a deliciously warm-caramel feeling? I've become wary over the years of people who tell me how loving they are; they remind me too much of people who tell me how modest they are. I wanna see discipline, there. "Sensitive is as sensitive does, not as sensitive feels."

On the other hand, I know from my own work that I can make myself write something out of sheer determination, but that if I do so, it will lack that spark that makes all the difference. It will be smooth, accomplished, and dead as a doorknob. Sometimes duty is going to have to yank me kicking and screaming back to the keyboard, but always there's a point when the love of the work kicks in, and then the words slip through my fingers and onto the screen as easily as small silver fish through the water. Because when the love takes over, duty may be still duty, but it tastes like chocolate.

Our duty to God should, as Auden said, be happiness. Scripture tells us again and again that God doesn't rejoice in sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice: that's a dull mechanical thing without breath or music, and it does no one any good at all. Love will inevitably involve sacrifice, because that's putting self aside for the sake of something that matters more - no quarrels with that. Sometimes what will have to go is our own need to feel loving, and to impose our love on others, for that's not love at all but vanity.

But while Duty will sometimes have to give Love a tweak or a tug, Love will sail through uncharted wastes of ocean with Duty bobbing happily in its wake. That's far more God-pleasing than Duty dragging Love along by the ankle - or worse still, Duty chugging along solo, having parted company with love, forging ahead out of sheer stubbornness and pride.

If this work ever becomes sheer duty to me, I will stop, because then I will be glorifying only my own stubborn persistence, not God. Sometimes it's hard to get started, I have to admit, especially on Saturdays like this, when my house is a-swarm with visiting kids and unasked-for company and laundry and whatnot. It's good to have the professional discipline to get me off and running: gotta get the weekly piece done.... But once started, what's got to propel me through the work is that sense of sliding along with a Something that maintains me, and feeds me body and soul. That Something, like Rumpelstilskin, spins this straw into gold. When it calls me off in this particular direction, it's not a drill sergeant's bellow but the sweetest song of the sexiest of sirens. And that Something is Love.

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 20 May 2000
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