The Way We Work, the Way We Live

by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson, who teaches at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, is the author of Housekeeping and Mother Country.

This essay is excerpted from her book The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Though, which will be published this month (September 1998) by Houghton Mifflin. This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 9-16, 2998, pp. 823-831. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We sell ourselves cheap, so that work can demand always more of our time, and families can claim always less. The sin most abhorrent to God is the failure of generosity, the neglect of widow and orphan, the oppression of the poor.

We are all aware that the word "family" eludes definition, as do other important things like nation, race, culture, gender, species; like art, science, virtue, vice, beauty, truth, justice, happiness, religion; like success; like intelligence. The attempt to impose definition on indeterminacy and degree and exception is about the straightest road to mischief I know of--very deeply worn, very well traveled. But just for the purposes of this discussion, let us say: one's family are those toward whom one feels loyalty and obligation, and/or from whom one derives identity, and/or to whom one gives identity, and/or with whom one shares habits, tastes, stories, customs, memories. This definition allows for families of circumstance and affinity as well as kinship, and it allows also for the existence of people who are incapable of family, though they may have parents and siblings and spouses and children.

I think the biological family is especially compelling to us because it is, in fact, very arbitrary in its composition. I would never suggest so rude an experiment as calculating the percentage of one's relatives one would actually choose as friends, the percentage of one's relatives who would choose one as their friend. And that is the charm and the genius of the institution. It implies that help and kindness and loyalty are owed where they are perhaps by no means merited. Owed, that is, even to ourselves. It implies that we are in some few circumstances excused from the degrading need to judge others' claims on us, excused from the struggle to keep our thumb off the scales of reciprocity.

Of course, families do not act this way always or even typically, certainly not here, certainly not now. But we recognize such duty and loyalty as quintessentially familial where we see it. And if the family is culturally created, what we expect of it has a great deal to do with determining what it will be in fact.

Obviously if we are to employ the idea that behaviors are largely culturally created, we must humble that word "fact." It seems very plausible to me that our ceasing to romanticize the family has precipitated, as much as it has reflected, the weakening of the family. I am sure it is no accident that the qualities of patience and respect and loyalty and generosity which would make family sustainable are held in very low regard among us, some of them even doubling as neuroses such as dependency and lack of assertiveness. I think that we have not solved the problem of living well, that we are not on the way to solving it, and that our tendency to insist on noisier and more extreme statements of the new wisdom that has already failed gives us really very little ground for optimism.

Imagine this: some morning we awake to the cultural consensus that a family, however else defined, is a sort of compact of mutual loyalty, organized around the hope of giving rich, human meaning to the lives of its members. Toward this end family members do what people do--play with their babies, comfort their sick, keep their holidays, commemorate their occasions, sing songs, tell jokes, fight and reconcile, teach and learn what they know about what is right and wrong, about what is beautiful and what is to be valued. They enjoy each other and make themselves enjoyable. They are kind and receive kindness, they are generous and are sustained and enriched by others' generosity. The antidote to fear, distrust, self-interest is always loyalty. The balm for failure or weakness, or even for disloyalty, is always loyalty.

This is utopian. And yet it describes something of which many of us feel deprived. We have reasoned our way to uniformly conditional relationships. This is at the very center of the crisis of the family since the word means, if it means anything, that certain people exist on special terms with each other, which terms are more or less unconditional. We have instead decided to respect our parents, maybe, if they meet our stringent standards of deserving. Just so do our children respect us, maybe.

Siblings founder, spouses age. We founder. We age. That is when loyalty should matter. But invoking it now is about as potent a gesture as flashing a fat roll of rubles. I think this may contribute enormously to the sadness so many of us feel at the heart of contemporary society. "Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds," in the words of the sonnet, which I can only interpret to mean, love is loyalty. I would suggest that in its absence, all attempts to prop the family economically or morally or through education or otherwise will fail. The real issue is, will people shelter and nourish and humanize one another? This is creative work, requiring discipline and imagination. No one can be scolded or fined into doing it, nor does it occur spontaneously in the demographically traditional family.

But we have forgotten many things. We have forgotten solace. Maybe the saddest family, properly understood, is a miracle of solace. Imagine that someone failed and, disgraced, came back to his family, and they grieved with him, took his sadness upon themselves, and sat down together to ponder the deep mysteries of human life. This is more human and beautiful than is the help our multitude of professional healers and comforters can give, I propose, even if it yields no dulling of pain, no patching of injuries. Perhaps it is the calling of some families to console because intractable grief is visited upon them. And perhaps measures of the success of families that exclude this work from consideration, or even see it as failure, are foolish and misleading.

We now tend to think of the ideal family as a little hatchery for future contributors to the Social Security system, non-criminals who will enhance national productivity while lowering the cost per capita of preventable illness. We have forgotten that old American nonsense about alabaster cities, about building the stately mansions of the soul. We have lowered our hopes abysmally. To fulfill or to fall short of such minor aspirations as we encourage now is the selfsame misery.

For some time we seem to have been launched on a great campaign to deromanticize everything even while we are eager to insist that more or less everything that matters is a romance, a tale we tell one another. Family is a narrative of love and comfort which corresponds to nothing in the world, but which has formed behavior and expectation--fraudulently, many now argue. It is as if we no longer sat in chairs after we learned that furniture is only space and atoms. I suppose it is a new upsurge of that famous Western rationalism, old enemy of reasonableness, always so right at the time, always so shocking in retrospect.

We have exorcised the ghost and kept the machine, and the machine is economics. The modern Western family was snatched out of the fires of economics, and we, for no reason I can see, have decided to throw it back in again. It all has to do with the relationship of time and money. When we take the most conscientious welfare mothers out of their homes and neighborhoods with our work programs, we put them in jobs that do not pay well enough to let them provide good care for their children. This seems to me neither wise nor economical. We do it out of no special malice but because we have lately reorganized society so that even the children of prosperous families often receive doubtful care and meager attention. Middle-class people are enforcing values they themselves now live by, as if they were not in fact a great cause of the social pathologies of the middle class.

An employed American today works substantially longer hours than he or she did 25 years ago, when only one adult in an average household was employed and many more households were made up of two adults. The recent absence of parents from the home has first of all to do with how much time people spend at work. Some of them are ambitious business people or professionals, but many more patch together a living out of two or three part-time jobs, or work overtime as an employer's hedge against new hiring. Statistically the long hours simply indicate an unfavorable change in the circumstances of those who work. If an aver- age household today produces more than twice as much labor in hours as an average household did 25 years ago, and receives only a fraction more in real income, then obviously the value of labor has fallen--even while the productivity of labor in the same period has risen sharply. So, male and female, we sell ourselves cheap, with the result that work can demand always more of our time, and our families can claim always less of it. This is clearly a radical transformation of the culture, which has come about without anyone's advocating it, without consensus, without any identifiable constituency.

The family as we know it in the modern West has been largely willed and reformed into existence. The case has been made that childhood was invented--which it was, at least in the sense that certain societies began to feel that young children should be excluded from the workforce, and women with them, to some extent at least.

European culture was long distinguished by the thoroughness with which it coerced labor out of its population--slavery and industrialization, phenomena equally indifferent to such inconveniences as considerations of family, were natural extensions of feudalism, only more ambitious and ingenious in their exactions. Working conditions in trades and factories were brutal into the present century. We tend to forget that women of working age were often pregnant or nursing and often obliged to leave infants and small children unattended. Sometimes they gave birth on the factory floor.

Children of working age--that is, as young as five--were spared no hardship. The British documented these horrors quite meticulously for generations: coffles of children driven weeping through morning darkness to the factories; children lying down to sleep in the roads because they were too exhausted to walk home at night; children dismembered by machines they were obliged to repair while the machines ran; children in factory dormitories sleeping by the hundreds, turn and turn about, in beds that were never empty until some epidemic swept through and emptied them, and brought hundreds of new children, orphans or so-called child paupers, to work away their brief lives. It is no wonder that the ideal of mother and children at home and father adequately paid to keep them from need was a thing warmly desired, and that for generations social reform was intended to secure this object.

By comparison with Britain, America was late in industrializing, and its agricultural economy was based on widely distributed ownership of land. Nevertheless, the societies were similar enough to be attentive to each other's reform movements. The decisive innovation was the idea that one wage earner should be able to support a wife and a few children, rather than that every employable person in a household should support himself or herself and some fraction of a baby or two. The idea of "living wage" became much more important in America, where labor was usually in demand and therefore able to command a higher price and to set other limits and conditions governing employers' access to it. Where labor is cheap, the market is flooded with it, assuring that it will remain cheap. Other goods will, over time, be withheld if they do not command a reasonable price, but the cheaper labor is, the less it will be withheld, because people have to live, and to hedge against the falling wages and unemployment which are always characteristic of a glutted labor market. These phenomena have been observed and analyzed since the 17th century. Now they are recrudescent like other old maladies we thought we had eliminated.

It is because the contemporary American family was the goal and product of reform that it was idealized, and that it was so long and so confidently invoked as a common value, as a thing deserving and also requiring political and economic protection. This has had many important consequences for policy and law. Yet for some reason we are convinced at the moment that the ways of our economy should be identical with the laws of the market, and therefore we depart resolutely from norms and customs that controlled economic behavior through our long history of increasing prosperity. No one is more persuaded of the rightness of this course than those who claim especially to cherish the family.

Take for example the weekend, or that more venerable institution, the Sabbath. Moses forbade that servants, even foreigners, should work on the seventh day. If their wage was subsistence, as it is fair to assume it was in premodern societies, then his prohibition had the immediate practical effect of securing for them seven days' pay for six days' work. He raised the value of their labor by limiting access to it. In all its latter-day forms the Sabbath has had this effect.

Now those among us whose prosperity is eroding fastest are very likely to be at work on Sunday because they cannot afford not to work when they have the chance and because they cannot risk losing a job so many others would be happy to take. Absent legal or contractual or religious or customary constraints, workers without benefits or job security or income that is at least stable relative to the economy have no way of withholding their labor. Now all those constraints are gone, in the name of liberalization, I suppose. The last great Sabbatarian institution is the school system, so the quondam day of rest is now a special burden for families with young children or children who need supervision.

Of course, the shops must be open on Sundays and at night because the rate of adult employment is so high and the working day is so long that people need to be able to buy things whenever they can find the time. I would suggest that such voracious demands on people's lives, felt most mercilessly by the hardest pressed, such as employed single parents, are inimical to the family and to many other things of value.

Clearly, a calculation could be made in economic terms of the social cost of this cheapening of labor. It is no great mystery that statistics associate social problems with single-parent families. And social problems--crime, for example--are an enormous expense, an enormous drag on the economy. We are conditioned to think that the issue for single mothers, say, is work or welfare. In fact the issue is decent working hours and reasonable pay. Single mothers hold the world together for children who in many instances have been half abandoned. It is grotesque that their lives should be made impossible because of some unexamined fealty to economic principles that are impoverishing to us all.

In an odd spirit of censoriousness, it is often remarked that American culture was never a melting pot. We are given to know that it was wrong to have aspired to such an ideal, and wrong to have fallen short of it. There seems to me to be little evidence that the ideal ever was aspired to, at least in the sense in which critics understand the phrase. Since religion is central to most special identities within the larger national culture, religious tolerance has been the great guarantor of the survival of the variety of cultures. It was characteristic of European countries for centuries to try to enforce religious uniformity on just these grounds. If earlier generations in America chose not to follow this example, presumably they knew and accepted the consequences of departing from it, that assimilation would have important limits. This strikes me as a happy arrangement, all in all.

Now there is a great anxiety about the survival and recognition of these cultures of origin. I suggest that this sense of loss, which reflects, it seems, novel and unwelcome assimilation, is another consequence of the disruption of the family. Civic life is expected to be ethnically neutral, and at the same time to acknowledge our multitude of ethnicities and identities in such a way as to affirm them, to make their inheritors all equally glad to embrace and sustain them. These are not realistic expectations. One acquires a culture from within the culture--for all purposes, from the family.

And acculturation takes time. Groups that feel unvalued are the very groups most vulnerable to the effects of the cheapening of labor, least able to control the use of their time. They look for, or are promised, amendment in the correction of images and phrases, in high school multicultural days and inclusive postage stamp issues. Such things can never supply the positive content of any identity.

The crudeness of public institutions in their attempts to respond to these demands is clearly in large part due to the fact that they are wholly unsuited to the work that is asked of them. Obviously they cannot supply the place of church or synagogue. The setting apart of the weekend once sheltered the traditions and institutions that preserved the variety of cultures. French Catholics and Russian Jews and Dutch Protestants could teach morals and values wholly unembarrassed by the fact that the general public might not agree with every emphasis and particular, and therefore they were able to form coherent moral personalities in a way that a diverse and open civic culture cannot and should not even attempt. The openness of the civic culture has depended on the fact that these groups and traditions have functioned as teachers of virtue and morality, sustaining by their various lights a general predisposition toward acting well. When the state attempts to instill morality, the attempt seems intrusive and even threatening precisely because that work has traditionally been reserved to family, community and religion, to the institutions of our diversity--a thing we have cherished historically much better than we do now, for all our talk. Or rather, our talk arises from a nervous awareness that our traditional diversity is eroding away, and we are increasingly left with simple difference, in its most negative and abrasive forms.

I do not think it is nostalgia to suggest that it would be well to reestablish the setting apart of time traditionally devoted to religious observance. If there is any truth in polls, the American public remains overwhelmingly religious, and religion is characteristically expressed in communities of worship. To take part in them requires time. It may be argued that there are higher values--for example, the right to buy what one pleases when one pleases, which involves another's right to spend Saturday or Sunday standing at a cash register or to compel someone else to stand there. If these are the things we truly prefer, there is no more to be said. But the choice is unpoetical and, in its effects, intolerant. When we were primitive capitalists we did much better. Now people in good circumstances have their Saturdays and Sundays if they want them. Observance has become an aspect of privilege, though the privileged among us tend to be the least religious. No wonder the churches are dying out.

Those among us who call themselves traditionalists and invoke things like "religion" and "family" in a spirit that makes these honest words feel mean and tainted are usually loyal first of all to a tooth-and-nail competitiveness our history does not in fact enshrine. Religion and family must shift as they will when there is a dollar at stake. But the exponents of these notions are no better economists than they are historians. They are appalled by reforms meant to raise the price of labor. "Think of the cost to the employer!" they say. But what is the cost to the employer of this steady impoverishment of the consumer-- who is, after all, simply someone else's employee, spending what he dares of what he earns?

I think the history of ideas is easily as peculiar as anything that exists on our planet, that its causalities are altogether whimsical. We know that communism was a theology, a church militant, with sacred texts and with saints and martyrs and prophets, with doctrines about the nature of the world and of humankind, with immutable laws and millennial visions and life-pervading judgments about the nature of good and evil. No doubt it failed finally for the same reason it lasted as long as it did, because it was a theology, gigantic and rigid and intricate, taking authority from its disciplines and its hierarchies even while they rendered it fantastically ill suited to the practical business of understanding and managing an economy.

In obedience to the great law which sooner or later makes one the image of one's enemy, we have theologized our own economic system, transforming it into something likewise rigid and tendentious and therefore always less useful to us. It is an American style, stripped-down, low-church theology, its clergy largely self-ordained, golf-shirted, the sort one would be not at all surprised and only a little alarmed to find on one's doorstep. Its teachings are very, very simple: There really are free and natural markets where the optimum value of things is assigned to them; everyone must compete with everyone; the worthy will prosper and the unworthy fail; those who succeed while others fail will be made deeply and justly happy by this experience, having had no other object in life; each of us is poorer for every cent that is used toward the wealth of all of us; governments are instituted among people chiefly to interfere with the working out of these splendid principles.

This is such a radical obliteration of culture and tradition--let us say, of Jesus and Jefferson--as to awe any Bolshevik, of course. But then contemporary discourse is innocent as a babe unborn of any awareness of culture and tradition, so the achievement is never remarked. It is nearly sublime, a sort of cerebral whiteout. But my point here is that unsatisfactory economic ideas and practices which have an impressive history of failure, which caused to founder that great nation California, which lie at the root of much of the shame and dread and division and hostility and cynicism with which our society is presently afflicted, are treated as immutable truths, not to be questioned, not to be interfered with, lest they unleash their terrible retribution, recoiling against whomever would lay a hand on the Ark of Market Economics, if that is the name under which this mighty power is currently invoked.

There is a great love of certitude implicit in all this, and those impressed by it often merge religious, social and economic notions, discovering likeness in this supposed absolute clarity, which is really only selectivity and simplification. Listening to these self-declared moralists and traditionalists, it seems to me I hear from time to time a little satisfaction in the sober fact that God, as our cultures have variously received him through the Hebrew scriptures, seems to loathe, actually abominate, certain kinds of transgression. Granting this fact, let us look at the transgression's thus singled out. My own sense of the text, based on more than cursory reading, is that the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure of generosity, the neglect of widow and orphan, the oppression of strangers and the poor, the defrauding of the laborer. Since many of the enthusiasts of this new theology are eager to call themselves Christians, I would draw their attention to the New Testament, passim.

I have heard pious people say, Well, you can't live by Jesus' teachings in this complex modern world. Fine, but then they might as well call themselves the Manichean Right or the Zoroastrian Right and not live by those teachings. If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions toward particular holiness--which, while we are on the subject of divine abhorrence, God, as I recall, does not view much more kindly than he does neglect of the poor. In fact, the two are often condemned together.

I know that those who have taken a course in American history will think this merger of Christian pretensions and bullyboy economics has its origins in Calvinism and in Puritanism. Well, Calvin and the Puritans both left huge literatures. Go find a place where they are guilty of this vulgarization. Or, a much easier task, find a hundred or a thousand places where they denounce it, taking inspiration, always, from the Bible, which it was their quaint custom to read with a certain seriousness and attention. We have developed a historical version of the victim defense, visiting our sins upon our fathers. But I will say a thing almost never said among us: we have ourselves to blame.

Communism demonstrated the great compatibility of secularism with economic theology, and we may see the same thing now in the thinking of many of our contemporaries. On the assumption that American society is destined to extreme economic polarization, certain brave souls have written brave books arguing that those who thrive are genetically superior to those who struggle. They have higher IQs.

So we are dealing with a Darwinian paradigm, again, as people have done in one form or another since long before Darwin. The tale is always told this way--the good, the fit, the bright, the diligent prosper. These correspond to the creatures who, in the state of nature, would survive and reproduce. But--here our eyes widen--civilization lumbers us with substandard types who reproduce boundlessly and must finally swallow us up in their genetic mediocrity, utterly confounding and defeating the harsh kindness of evolution. This peril once posed itself in the form of the feckless Irish. But they became prosperous, enjoying, one must suppose, a great enhancement of their genetic endowment in the process, since I have never heard that the arts and professions have had to stoop to accommodate their deficiencies. This theory is so resilient because it can always turn a gaze unclouded by memory or imagination on the least favored group in any moment or circumstance, like the Darwinian predator fixing its eye on the gazelle with the sprained leg, perfectly indifferent to the fact that another gazelle was lame two days ago, yet another will be lame tomorrow.

The Social Darwinist argument always arises to answer, or to preclude, or in fact to beg, questions about social justice--during trade wars or in the midst of potato famines. We are not quite at ease with the chasm that may be opening in our society, and some of us seek out the comforts of resignation. And these comforts are considerable. Viewed in the light of science, or at least of something every bit as cold and solemn as science, we see manifest in this painful experience the invisible hand of spontaneous melioration, the tectonic convulsions meant to form the best of all possible worlds.

But, at the risk of a little discomfort, let us try another hypothesis, just to see if it has descriptive power as great or even greater than the one favored by sociobiology. Let us just test the idea that our problems reflect an in- ability to discover or prepare an adequate elite. Obviously the thought of deficiency at the top of society is more alarming than deficiency at the bottom, but that is all the more reason to pause and consider.

When we speak of an elite, do we mean people of high accomplishment, people who do valuable work with great skill, people who create standards and articulate values? Are we speaking of our brilliant journalists, our noble statesmen, the selfless heroes of our legal profession? To be brief, what part of the work of the culture that is properly the responsibility of an elite actually functions at the level even of our sadly chastened hopes? Are our colleges producing great humanists and linguists? Is spiritual grandeur incubating in our seminaries? How often do we wonder if the medical care we receive is really appropriate?

For the purpose of these sociobiologists, membership in the elite seems to be a matter of income. But doctors and professors and journalists are so much a part of the morphology of our civilization that they will be with us until goats are put to graze in our monuments, and will probably be pulling down a decent salary, too, by whatever standards apply. Their presence in roles that are ideally filled by competent people does not make them competent. "But IQ!" they will answer. Yes, and since our society is, statistically speaking, in the hands of people with high IQs, we have no trouble at all finding a good newsmagazine, and we can always go to a good movie, and we are never oppressed by a sense of vulgarity or stupidity hardening around us. "But that is condescension to the masses," they will say. "You have to do things that are very stupid to make enough income to qualify for a place in this elite of the bright and worthy." Yes. That accounts, I suppose, for the rosy contentment of the man in the street.

Or perhaps they would offer no such tortuous defense. Perhaps they would say that if an elite is defined as a group of highly competent, responsible people with a special gift for holding themselves to exacting standards, we have at present rather little in the way of an elite. Then perhaps a high IQ correlates strongly with the sharpness of the elbows, and simply obtains for people advantages to which they have no true right. Qualities consistent with the flourishing of the individual can be highly inconsistent with the flourishing of the group.

We have forgotten that democracy was intended as a corrective to the disasters visited upon humanity by elites of one kind or another. Maybe the great drag on us all is not the welfare mother but the incompetent engineer, not the fatherless child but the writer of mean or slovenly books. When our great auto industry nearly collapsed, an elite of designers and marketing experts were surely to blame. But the thousands thrown out of work by their errors were seen as the real problem. No doubt many of these workers figure among the new lumpen-proletariat, as the Marxists used to call them--people who just are not bright enough.

These grand theories are themselves no proof of great intelligence in the people who formulate them. Obviously I am shaken by the reemergence of something so crude as Social Darwinism. But my point here is that regrettable changes in our economy may not simply express the will of the market gods, but may instead mean something so straightforward as that those whose decisions influence the economy might not be good at their work. If they were brighter, perhaps no pretext would ever have arisen for these ungracious speculations about the gifts of the powerless and the poor.

It seems to me that something has passed out of the culture, changing it invisibly and absolutely. Suddenly it seems there are too few uses for words like humor, pleasure and charm; courage, dignity and graciousness; learnedness, fairmindedness, openhandedness; loyalty, respect and good faith. What bargain did we make? What could have appeared for a moment able to compensate us for the loss of these things? Perhaps I presume in saying they are lost. But if they were not, surely they would demand time and occasion--time because every one of them is an art or a discipline, and occasion because not one of them exists except as behavior. They are the graces of personal and private life, and they live in the cells of the great cultural reef, which takes its form and integrity from them, and will not survive them, if there is aptness in my metaphor.

Why does society exist, if not to accommodate our lives? Jefferson was a civilized man; clearly it was not his intention to send us on a fool's errand. Why do we never imagine that the happiness he mentioned might include a long supper with our children, a long talk with a friend, a long evening with a book? Given time, and certain fading habits and expectations, we could have comforts and luxuries for which no one need be deprived. We could nurture our families, sustain our heritages and, in the pregnant old phrase, enjoy ourselves. The self, that dear and brief acquaintance, we could entertain with a little of the ceremony it deserves.

It will be objected that we are constrained by the stern economics of widget manufacture. Perhaps. If that argument is otherwise persuasive, there is no real evidence that it is true. In either case, we should at least decide when such considerations should be determining. There is a terse, impatient remark in Paul's letter to the Galatians: "For freedom Christ has set us free." And why are we, by world and historical standards, and to the limit of our willingness to give meaning to the word--why are we free? To make hard laws out of doubtful theories, and impose them and obey them at any cost? Nothing good can come of this. Great harm has come of it already.