Once upon a time, we humans mostly did work that fit into discreet time periods. Land was measured by the amount a man could plow in a day. Craftspeople worked on one piece at a time – if you were a furniture maker, you made a table, and you worked on it until you were done, and then you might build a chest of drawers or a cabinet. Days had rhythms to them that were dependent upon the amount of daylight available to you, and at the end of the day the sun went to bed, and then shortly after that, you did too.
We don’t really live in that sort of world anymore. With the advent of electricity, we can work around the clock, and sleep is a biological necessity rather than part of the rhythm of the day. Because of technology, I can work for a person in another state, interact with her daily, and never have seen her in person, or know anything personal about her. We have close friends who live all over the world, and yet we do not know what shoes they prefer, whether they have bad breath, or if they have dandruff. I am emotionally close to people whose legs I have never seen.
And our work has changed as well. Many of us work on projects that, if they have endings, are long in scope, and when they are done, there is nothing tangible to show someone. If you make soap for a living, you can show your mother the bar of soap you made yesterday. Not so much with a database. For those of us in the helping professions, there is all of this, but more so. Jim was an addict yesterday, and will be an addict at the end of the day today when I go home, and will probably be an addict tomorrow. It’s hard to point at a finished product and say, ‘I am done.”
It all feels like a treadmill, endlessly turning, and because it feels like one could hop on or off at any point without changing the outcome, it is easy to feel disconnected from the world around you, and to feel as if you are not needed, and would not be missed. Because who the hell understands what you actually do, anyway?
Which is why I like making things in my spare time. When I set out to make something like a cutting board, I know it will take me a few hours, and then I will be done. I make one of them at a time, and it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I can finish one before I go to sleep at night. Even if it is a bigger thing like a table, a thing that will take more than one day, I still can look at the work I have done and it has obvious progress – I can point to the pile of materials that is smaller than it was at the beginning, and the table carcass that now has turned legs and a glued up top waiting me to plane it.
I get the same feeling from gardening, which ties me to the seasons and the environment, or cooking, which ties me to people and pleasure, and which allows me to make low-risk bets that teach you something, usually in less than 30 minutes.
So if you feel disconnected from the world right now, I encourage you to carve out time to make something. Maybe a table, or whittle a piece of wood, or maybe just an omelet for yourself or someone you love. Something that has a beginning and an end, something that when you are done, you can point to it and say, ‘I did that” and that you can know would not have come into being apart from your work.