Willing to Dig
Here are my notes from the ECS convocation a couple days ago.
Once upon a time in a land not so very far away, a small group of people lived where it rained almost every day. It rained so much that sometimes the people wondered if it would ever stop. It didn’t always rain at the same time or in the same amount, but it rained so frequently that everyone took water for granted. They always had more than enough.
They always had enough, that is, until one summer when it stopped raining. The people noticed the first day it didn’t rain, but it didn’t effect much of anything because they had such a plentiful supply of water. After the first week without rain everyone was talking about the change in the weather, but there still seemed to be no change in the supply, so there was no panic. But after a few months, people began to realize that things were not okay. The leaves on the trees turned brittle and the grass was brown. Birds sang less and kids stopped playing outside. The water levels had dropped below danger level, the levels were lower than anyone could remember. Thirst and fear rose.
One day a stranger came to town. He started talking with people and told them that he had lived there many years ago and, most importantly, that the town sat on a great reservoir of water. He could not say for certain how far down they needed to dig, but he guaranteed that with enough digging, all the water they needed would be found.
The old man left and many of the people began to discuss his idea. Some refused to believe it. Besides, they had always gotten all the water they needed from the rain; they would just wait for rain. Others thought that digging couldn’t hurt. Even if there was no water under the town nothing would be lost for trying, and they weren’t doing anything else. Yet others believed the old man’s word and set out to find pick axes and shovels and whatever they thought could break through the bony ground.
The work was difficult. It was hot, dirty, long, and progress was hard to measure. They didn’t know how far down the water was, let alone what obstacles they would face the further down they dug. Some quit after just a couple hours; they thought, “Let others dig.” Others worked for a few days, but grew tired and frustrated and lost faith that there was actually any water to be found. By the end of the next month no one was digging any more and no rain more had fallen. The townspeople were in serious trouble, and what they didn’t know was that they were also only inches away from hitting the reservoir. But no one was willing to dig.
I read a book at the beginning of the summer titled Deep Work. The author doesn’t write from an explicitly Christian worldview, but I think he does accurately address a trend among Americans and especially among young Americans, many of whom are students. He sees an increase in the number of young people who are uninterested in seeking out and/or unwilling to do hard work.
He looks at the problem in the workforce. More and more jobs are becoming automated, able to be done by technological, impersonal solutions. Why pay a person hour after hour when you can pay for a program/app once that doesn’t need lunch breaks or health insurance or have conflict with other employees?
But so many employees appear incapable of, or at least put off by, work that requires sustained concentration and effort. They prefer to be interrupted by bite-size pieces of information, like emails and social media updates and texts from friends. They prefer candy. They prefer to stay on the surface. They prefer the shallows. Good workers are hard to find.
So also are good students. Students prefer to read books that don’t demand too much time or thinking, they prefer to write papers that don’t require proof or logical presentation, they prefer to have teachers explain everything to them (and only explain the least amount necessary to pass the test) rather than investigate and learn for themselves.
Let’s use another water analogy, but this time swimming. Some swimmers splash, or flail, along the surface and deal with more resistance than those who push down deep. There are rules for how long a swimmer can stay under the water because it is an advantage. You have to take a deep breath, dive under, and drive. It takes a commitment to put your head into it. I will never be a skilled swimmer, or even a competent one, until I get comfortable putting my face in the water. Will you go deep, again and again, lap after lap, paper after paper, until you get comfortable and quick?
ECS exists not only because we believe there is life-giving water to be found through digging education, but also because we want to grow people who know how to and are willing to dig. So many good things require more than five minutes of half-hearted effort. We want you not just to know things, we want you to have the ability to learn more things than we know, along with the ability to produce things for others. But this requires work.
Successful image-bearers of God work to master complicated material. It may be different material for different people but it’s same kind of work at each level. If you are a first-grader, you aren’t using the same tools as a freshman, but you are still called to do the same thing: dig.
Martin Luther wrote a letter to a friend about his frustration as he preached through Ecclesiastes.
Solomon the preacher is giving me a hard time, as though he begrudged anyone lecturing on him. But he must yield. (quoted in The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 96).
Solomon would “yield” as Luther worked to understand. Just a few years earlier he had wrestled for days with the meaning of the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 and wrote,
I beat importunately [persistently] upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. (ibid., 91)
By continuing to dig Luther was born again and shortly after launched a Reformation.
The beginning of a new school year is a good time to be reminded that education is costly. It takes dollars, yes, but it also takes energy dollars and focus dollars. As is true most of the time, you get what you pay for.
You grammar students have a great opportunity to get good at digging now, and by the time you hit Omnibus age you’ll think the work is no big deal and will seek out more. Or if you get into the habit of quitting because it’s not easy, it won’t be long before you consider that most everything isn’t easy. You are practicing what kind of person you will be and what kinds of things you can do.
Some of you older students have more freedom than the younger ones. For some of you, listening to music may help you focus, and for others of you, you say it helps you focus, but you’re focusing on the music and telling your teachers that you just don’t understand the textbook. Maybe you need to message a classmate to get a clarification on a group project, and maybe you waste an hour texting about a hundred other unrelated things. Deliberately wasting your attention when focus is within your ability to choose, is a way to hate the work and prolong the work and produce less competent work.
Raggants, dig deep. Work deeply. Don’t assume that you can’t. Want something more than the path of easy resistance.