Better two than just one

Naked Questions/8 - Life lived in isolation and its salt (and salary) are savourless

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 27/12/2015

Logo Qohelet"On the beach of the worlds / the surf is broken / ancient and new alike / carrying human desires / palpitating in the sun / invoking life. ... And we are here waiting for him. Because he is still to come. ... And no one / will be left alone in the end"

Rough translation of the excerpt from the poem by Maria Pia Giudici entitled Sulla spiaggia dei mondi (On the beach of the worlds)

Solitudes are not all the same. There are people who have become lonely in life, elderly people whose solitude continues to be inhabited by the absence-presence of those whom they have loved. Some people are lonely simply because they are poor, isolated and abandoned on the outskirts of our cities.

But there are also the different instances of loneliness of the powerful, or that of the victims of a socio-economic model that celebrates the liberation from bonds as an achievement of civilization, promising another type of happiness by replacing people with merchandise. The good instances of loneliness, which can even be blessed ('blessed solitude, sola beatitudo') are increasingly intertwined with meetings: they are the breaks in the ordinary social rhythm of life, the different dialogues that recreate and regenerate the inner space in order to meet the face of the other again. But when loneliness becomes an alternative to life in community, when I’d rather meet myself just to run away from you, if I get used to being alone because I do not know how to be with anyone, the strong words of Qoheleth return: woe to him who is alone.

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbour. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4: 4-6)

Qoheleth continues criticising his society. ‘Under the sun’ he sees men who rush into a competition that for Qoheleth is not the spirit of development but only the result of social envy. He saw men outscore the others in a game where everyone loses, in ‘positional races’ with no goal. He saw this in his world, and we see it even more in ours. And so his strong judgment is issued yet again: hebel, vanity, smoke, silly run of the wind. On the opposite side of this frenzy, Qoheleth sees those who reject entering the race, crossing their arms in inactivity. This is not a sign of wisdom, either. It is just as foolish as the envy-driven competition of the first scene.

After that, he shows us a wise road to take: leaving a hand free so that its palm can be filled by calmness and rest gained from 'consolation'. The two hands of the human being are not to be engaged in the same activity: if the one who leaves both hands motionless is foolish then the one who makes both of them busy with hectic work is equally insane. The fruit of labour and industriousness can be enjoyed only if we leave a gap for no-work, if one palm is empty and can accept the fruits conquered by the other. He who never works is crazy, and he who always works is crazier.

Our civilization is built around the condemnation of idleness, and has created a culture of good life based on work by establishing a fundamental link between human dignity, democracy and labour. If your arms are inactive because you do not want to or cannot work in your working age do not generate either welfare or joy. In the race that western civilization began several decades ago, however, we have forgotten the second folly-vanity according to wise Qoheleth: life is smoke and a striving after wind also because of too much work. Work is only good in its right 'time'.

In that ancient culture the experience of Egypt and Babylon were still alive, when the Jews became slaves and had to constantly work with both hands. Only the slaves and those enslaved by envy and greed are scrambling always just for work. It is difficult to say today whether the ones suffering more are the unemployed who cross their arms innocently or the overpaid managers who spend Christmas in the office because work - like all idols - has gradually eaten up their soul and friends. These are different types of suffering and both are very serious, but we do not see the second one as madness and vanitas, and we incentivize it.

It is the relationship between one and two that is the focus of this chapter of Ecclesiastes: “Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person [one, not two] who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, »For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure« This also is vanity and an unhappy business.” (4,7-8) We are reading a wonderful page, a veritable distillate of anthropology. Qoheleth reveals a deep, radical and terrible relationship between solitude and work. He presents us with a man who works too much, always ('there is no end to all his toil'), and all the riches he earns do not satisfy him ever. It is in this non-satiety that the key to this verse lies: the riches that cannot be shared does not satiate, it does not satisfy our hearts. It only feeds the striving after wind, and produces the great self-deception that wealth in itself or an increase in assets will satiate today's poverty tomorrow. And the carousel continues to turn, getting emptier and emptier.

Suddenly Ecclesiastes makes us enter into the soul of this person, showing us a quick but intense way of self-examination: 'but why all these toils for nothing? Who and what is this crazy job consuming my life good for?' If we could read the diary of the soul of our time, we would find millions of such cases of self-examination. Loneliness 'distorts incentives' and makes you work too much, because job satisfaction becomes a substitute for happiness outside of work. Work that gradually becomes everything destroys all the few remaining relationships, and so you work even more. Working time increases, I come home tired, I do not feel like going out, the 'cost' of relationships outside of work increases, tomorrow I'll go out less, and I will work more... Then one day the timely question may come: 'But why and for whom?' It is a rather dramatic question if the first time we ask it from ourselves is just before pension, but one that can be liberating if we are still in time. As long as we are alive enough to ask this question, we can still hope: the really sad day is the one when we decide not to suffer for our own unhappiness and just adapt to it. We convince ourselves to be well inside the trap into which we have fallen, and we do not ask for anything, so as not to die.

Two are better than one (...). For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him — a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4,9-12).

This is not a specific praise of family or friendship or even the spirituality of the community. This message is more radical. Life does not work if you're alone. When we are alone we are weak, vulnerable and miserable. More than two millennia have passed since these ancient words were written, and we have created contracts, insurances and thermal blankets to manage without the other. And so we have created the greatest collective illusion of human history: to believe that we can rise again, protect and warm ourselves on our own. But we also learned that it is not enough just to be in two in the same bed to feel warmth: there are no colder beds than those where you sleep in two, each immersed in their own solitude with no more words to say. It is not enough to be in two to escape the 'woe to him who is alone'. There are many instances of desperate loneliness masked as company, and many true companies hidden behind what seems like solitude.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” (4,9). Good salary can be shared. The true meaning of hard work is to have someone who is waiting for our salary. Salary without a horizon that's bigger than our ego is like salt without the dough it should flavour. The right time for a good salary is that of the home. Accumulating wealth without there being someone who should grow, live, study, be taken care of by this wealth, is nothing but a striving after wind, it is food that does not satiate our hunger, even when consumed in five-star restaurants.

Our era is losing the right time of work also because the link between work and family has been broken. When there are no children, when the horizon of work is too low, it is hard to find an answer to the naked question of Ecclesiastes. But our post-capitalist society has a growing need for people without strong ties of belonging, and so it lacks the limits on working hours, shifts, just as the rhythm of the different 'times'. This is what the ideal executives of big corporations are like. At times someone asks themselves: "why all this work, for whom is it"? It is a question that may be the beginning of a new life. The selection of new goods and services to accompany loneliness is becoming wider and more sophisticated with the sale of pseudo-relational goods. We produce people who are more and more lonely and we produce more and more goods to satisfy their insatiable loneliness. And the GDP - the indicator of our misery - grows and with it grows the unmet demand for gratuitousness.

But what will happen when this question of Ecclesiastes becomes a collective one? What new answers will we be able to give together? Will there still be good salt in the pantries of our businesses and cities? And if, looking carefully in every corner, we find even just a handful of it, will that be enough to flavour the dough? And will that salt still taste good?

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