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I have noticed in the past several weeks the surprise by some at what it takes to run our day-to-day lives. The stunning obliviousness as to how the things that we depend on are made and transported to us. “We must shut down the interstate rest areas,” some central planner exclaimed. Only to be shocked by the fact that truck drivers have to use the bathroom. I’m sure that planner, if he had ever been to a rest area, looked at the semis parked there with a type of resignation that he must mingle with the hoi polloi in a substandard bathroom since there wasn’t an exit nearby. It never occurring to him that every item he packed for his trip had originally traveled in a semi to get to him.
This same blindness infects the discussion of what an essential business is. “We must have protein,” the planners decide. The packing plants need to remain open. But just like they have no idea of what it takes to create a pencil, they have no idea of what’s essential beyond the slaughterhouse itself. The packing plant is essential, it must be cleaned. Are the companies that sell the water hoses, mops, rags, etc., essential as well?
I’d like to think that this is a relatively new phenomenon but as King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun”. Who can argue with the wisdom of Solomon? The Polish author Stanislaw Lem saw it as well. I just finished reading Hospital of the Transfiguration. It was written by Lem in the 1940s and is set in 1943 Poland. I’d like to share the following passage with you. This is the set up; Stefan is a young doctor who was out for a walk when a bad storm rolled in. He was offered shelter at an electrical substation by the foreman, Woch. While there, he watched Woch and his team expertly manage a crisis in the grid caused by the storm.
Of all the people who used to come to [Stefan’s] father’s workshop when he was a child, it was the workers who interested him most-the machinists, locksmiths, and electricians who made various parts to order. He had been intimidated by them-they were so different from everyone he knew. They were always patient, listening to his father with silent attention, looking at the blueprints carefully, almost respectfully. But beneath the cautious politeness lay something closed and hard.
Stefan noticed that although his father liked to go on and on at the dinner table about people he had met, he never mentioned the workers as if they, in contrast to the lawyers, engineers, and merchants, had no personality. Stefan had the illusion then that their life -“real life,” as he called it-was shrouded in mystery. For some time he racked his brains over the puzzle of that “real life,” before finally concluding that the idea was foolish.
Now, lying awake in the darkness, the memory surfaced. There had been some sense in that boyish dreaming after all: there was a real life for people like Woch!
Where Uncle Ksawery propounded atheism, … his father invented, and Stefan read philosophy and talked … for months on end to recognize “real life”-that life was out there maintaining their world, shouldering it like Atlas, as inconspicuous as the ground beneath their feet. But no, he was mythologizing, because something like a mutual exchange of services went on: Anzelm knew about architecture, … he and Ksawery treated the sick. Stefan suddenly realized that nothing would really change if all of them disappeared. Whereas without Woch and others like him, the world could not go on.
He rolled over, and some obscure impulse made him turn on the nightstand lamp. It was nothing, of course, but the light struck him as a symbol, a sign that Woch was on the job. The yellow light filling the impersonal room was somehow soothing; it ensured freedom for all tasks and thought. As long as it shined, it was possible to fantasize about worlds beyond the existing one.
… he noticed an open book on the table-Lord Jim, which he had been reading. He flicked the switch and darkness surrounded him again. In a quick leap of association, he wondered whether Woch would ever read that book, but the idea was so ludicrous that he smiled in the gloom. Woch would never pick up such a book; he had no need to sail the oceans with Lord Jim. He would look on Conrad with contempt for solving on paper problems that he himself solved in reality.