Arbeit Macht Frei – January 10, 2010

If I say the name Cal Ripken Jr., what comes to mind?

For most of us, it’s the image of a hard-working, dependable, dedicated infielder for the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. By the time he retired as a player in 2001, he was one of the most respected baseball players of all time in addition to being one of the most skilled. Part of his charm was his dependability. Called the “Iron Man,” he went 2,632 straight games over 17 seasons without missing a single one.

He surpassed by 502 games, the straight-game record of the man known as the “Iron Horse,” Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, to whom Ripken was often compared. Gehrig’s streak was ended in May 1939 by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the disease that would become known by his name. Two months after he could no longer play the game, the Yankees declared a Lou Gehrig Day.

Baseball had not yet discovered the promotional value of declaring special days, so it was rare then, and more than 62,000 excited fans turned out on July 4, 1939, to honor Gehrig. In October 2001 a similar day honored Cal Ripken, and you may remember that one. But what stands out about Lou Gehrig Day was what has become one of the best-known quotations of the 20th Century. That’s when he uttered those words that people were still talking about when I was growing up in the 1950s. In response to the cheers of the fans, he said: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Gehrig knew that he had an incurable, progressive, fatal disease, but being honored that way before 62,000 vocal fans for a job well done made him the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Now let’s jump from Yankee Stadium in 1939 and Oriole Park in 2001 to Wilmington, Ohio, in 2009. If you were watching “60 Minutes” three weeks ago, you would have seen an update on that city, hard-hit by the current recession. You would have seen an interview of a woman coping after her husband died of a heart attack and she lost her job. Her husband, a machinist, had been laid off six years before he died. He was proud of his work and refused to be retrained as anything other than a machinist. Finally, after those six years of unemployment, he got a job in his field and was issued a lapel pin and business cards, but before he actually started, a severe heart attack, which would prove fatal, landed him in the intensive care unit of the local hospital. When his wife found him there, his first halting, gasped words to her were: “What about the job?”

For the funeral, his widow put the lapel pin and business card on his chest so all would see, and before the coffin was closed she placed them in his hand.

Like Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, this unnamed machinist took great pride in his craft. But there’s no cheering throng of fans for a machinist who does his job phenomenally well, who cares passionately about his work, and who suffers tragically.

Gehrig was, and Ripken is, a great athlete. They displayed enormous skill at hitting, catching and throwing a small, hard, rapidly moving sphere. We know what they contributed to our world. Their performance entertained millions. They helped sports fans take their minds off their trouble They inspired others to work hard, act responsibly and pursue their dreams. But we’ll never know how much the machinist contributed to our lives. Did he produce precision parts that keep us safe when we fly or drive? Is there something he worked on that enhances our ability to watch today’s great athletes on our TVs and computers? Are there medical diagnostic devices like MRIs and cat scans that wouldn’t work were it not for his skilled contributions? We don’t know.

*****

A few weeks back, the Worship Committee said “Mel, how about a sermon on January 10? Is there a sermon you feel called to do?” I replied that I had several ideas floating around my mind and I was sure I could settle in on one of them for a good sermon.

Around then, the news broke that thieves had stolen the metal sign over the main entrance to the Auschwitz death camp – the sign that said, Arbeit macht frei, or work makes free, work makes you free. That helped me decide it was time for a sermon about work. I had uncles and aunts and cousins whom I never got to meet because they were killed in Auschwitz and other death camps before I was born. Of course, there’s something about that phrase – arbeit macht frei – that’s the ultimate in cruel irony. But there’s also something about it that rings true if you think about the real work in the camps, as opposed to the forced labor.

How many times have you heard stories about an inmate in the death camps stealing and hiding a small piece of paper so she or he could write a poem or a song – doing something to contribute to the world even if they didn’t make it out? They couldn’t save their lives, but despite the horrible conditions they could find the energy to create a piece of work – something that would last and give them a sense of freedom, or at least a sense of touching the freer outside world.

One woman who survived the concentration camps also protected her family’s diamonds, which her father had given her for safekeeping. She managed to do that by repeatedly swallowing them and recovering them from her waste. You could call that her real work in the camp, as opposed to the labor that was forced on her.

I’ve listened to an oral history from a concentration camp inmate who said that he and the others in his bunk hid a small boy under the floor – a boy who would have been gassed if the guards knew he was there. They each contributed a small piece of their bread from their own meager rations every day to feed him and keep him alive so that there would be someone to bear witness. That was their mission – their work – just as we’d classify it as work if they had been doctors saving the boy’s life.

Even people who had a high probability of being dead soon were, in fact, symbolically freed by finding for themselves a job – a way to contribute to the future, a way to produce something that would last beyond their own lives.

*****

Some achievements on the job are much more visible and obvious than others. Unitarian Universalist congregations are not known for their sports stars, but they are often well populated with people whose contributions are clear and commendable.

Our small church is no exception. Among our members are a psychiatrist, a couple of psychologists and others who help people recover from mental illness. We have artists and a singer/songwriter of enormous talent whose songs are like sermons – comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. We have a director in a multinational enterprise that consults to major worldwide corporations on matters of sustainability. We have teachers and school bus drivers, at least one nurse, and a county employee who helps the poor find subsidized rental housing. Those are just the ones that spring to mind. There are many more.

I greatly admire people like them whose work and whose ideals are visibly in alignment, clear for all to see. But we also have bookkeepers and retail clerks and office managers and computer programmers – and, yes, insurance agents – who make contributions to the world in less obvious ways as long as they bring their integrity and their kindness to work with them. They, too, can align their work and their ideals.

That’s something I understand better now than when I was younger. I spent the first 10 years of my professional life in journalism, and at an early age I held a management position that had a strong impact on how the day’s news was presented to millions of people. At the time, I don’t think I appreciated how important that was. I left that job in 1976 for a position in the corporate public relations department of Mobil Oil. With logic that I could never explain succinctly to a Unitarian Universalist congregation – and won’t try to – I made that change in a youthful quest for greater job fulfillment.

I stayed at Mobil far too long – 19 years as an employee and another 5 as a consultant. Toward the end of that period is when I became a serious student of Buddhism, and I struggled with one component of the Buddhist Eightfold Path – the one called “right livelihood,” the idea of working in a job that benefits the world, or at least doesn’t harm it. But whenever I raised that subject with one of my Buddhist teachers, I got the same answer: “Think of how much good you bring to that environment and how much harm would be done if you left.” There’s a modicum of truth to that, and it’s nice to hear, but when you stay in your job only because you’re pretty sure you couldn’t make as much money anywhere else, then maybe that’s a good time to leave. I didn’t leave, at least not voluntarily.

I will say that at Mobil I never felt as if I was being asked to lie to the public. At a later job in a trade association, I was asked repeatedly to lie, and I fought some furious battles. It wasn’t much fun to repeatedly need to draw lines in the sand, but I held to my principles. And that job didn’t last long.

What followed was a long period of unemployment and a failed business venture. I sent scores – maybe hundreds – of resumes to nonprofits doing some of that work that’s visibly commendable. But no one wanted a 50-something former wearer of a black hat and former maker of too much money.

*****

As someone who had succeeded beyond my dreams at a young age and then fizzled, I needed another success in order to feel complete. In 2005, I decided to go into an entirely new field, and I opened my Allstate insurance agency. That has been a success in terms of growth and, in my opinion, in terms of operating with integrity and kindness.

I didn’t originally plan to talk much about my business in this sermon, but the anecdote I’m about to tell fits too nicely into the message to pass it up. It’s a story some of you know. Shortly after I first opened my agency, I sent a letter to members and friends of the church announcing my new business and saying I’d make a donation to the church for people who got an insurance quote from me. I’ve been around enough UU churches to know that it would rub someone the wrong way, but the reaction was a lot worse than I had expected. To use a simile from my Jewish background, it was as though I has sent something traife – unclean, non-kosher – to people’s homes.

I wonder…If the business I was opening was a tai chi school and I was giving away a free first lesson, what would the reaction have been? I’ll leave you to answer that.

When I told a Jewish friend about that incident, he said I ought to return to Judaism. At his temple, members can buy ads in the newsletter.

The message I want to leave you with is that, with very few exceptions, we can do our jobs well and with integrity and compassion. I see it almost daily in my agency as we work patiently and respectfully with transient workers struggling with the English language and the coldness of the DMV. I see it in my employee who drove from Purcellville to Charles Town on the night before Christmas Eve to take a cash payment from a woman who couldn’t have her license reinstated until she had insurance, had no way other than cash to pay for the insurance, and of course couldn’t drive to bring us payment.

As I wrote this sermon I suddenly remembered something that happened in my early days at Mobil in the mid 1970s when New York City was in a severe fiscal crisis and many extracurricular school programs were closed. I happened to get a letter from a high school track coach that led me to get him the funding to keep an annual track meet alive, so I became the go-to guy around Mobil for matters involving high school sports.

One day The New York Daily News ran an editorial about how an annual dinner honored the boys in the city who excelled in high school sports programs, but there was no similar function for the girls, and of course no budget. One of the Mobil board members, who would later become chairman and CEO, circled that editorial and sent it to me with the words: “Can’t we do something about this?” So I created an annual dinner for girl athletes that was even more impressive than the one for boys.

Yes, I know all the things that people may, justifiably, feel about a major oil company, but it’s made of people and people almost always have the ability to bring compassion and kindness to work with them.

I’ll close with a quote from Helen Keller: “I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”

Amen.

Copyright © 2010 Mel Harkrader Pine

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