"For us let it be enough to know ourselves to be in the place where God wants us, and carry on our work, even though it be no more than the work of an ant, infinitesimally small, and with unforeseeable results."
-- Abbé Monchanin

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Toolmaker

Traditionally people take stock of their lives at New Year's day.  This year I offer the following short story as a stimulus for evaluating what we are doing with our lives. 


The old man sat quietly looking at the intricate piece of equipment in his hand.  A toolmaker.

"My life?" he said with  shake of his head.  "What can I tell you of my life?"  He paused, lost in the thoughts and memories.

"I guess you could say this life began when I got my job.  I wanted a job I could devote a lifetime to.  Something useful. Something I could find satisfaction in doing.  Money wasn't that important.

"One day I saw a sign at the factory."  His eyes glowed mistily at the memory.  "It said 'Trainees wanted.  Rewarding career and secure future.'  That was just what I was looking for.  A life of satisfying work.  So I went into the office and filled out the forms.  The competition for jobs must have been stiff because I saw a sign that said, 'Many are called but few are chosen.'

"I guess I'm one of the few 'cause a week later I was 'called' and 'chosen' both."  He snorted a laugh.  "I still didn't know exactly what my job would be but I knew anything in the factory would suit me.  I guess you could say I thought that working in the factory was a calling and that the particular job didn't matter much.  Everything was a part of the factory's operation."

The old man sat lost in thought as if trying to sort out how everything fit together in the functioning of the factory.

"I remember the first day I went to work.  My supervisor wore a badge stuck proudly on the lapel of his work jacket.  It was shaped like a strange piece of equipment.  A tool of some kind. Underneath it was the word 'INSTRUCTOR.'  He sure seemed proud of that pin.

"He led me into the factory to my work station.  There on the table was something that his badge must have been modeled after.  He said, 'That's your toolmaker.'

"At last I knew my job.  I was to be a maker of tools.  Tools. What would our world be without them?  Everything's made with tools.  Well, maybe not plants and babies.  But farmers use tools for planting and doctors use tools for delivering.  And I was to make tools for the factory.  Why, what could the factory do without the tools I would make?  My job was important.  It was basic.  It had meaning.  And, the pay wasn't bad."

A smile broke through the moisture in the old man's eyes as a rainbow breaks through the mists of the air.  And faded just as quickly.

"My supervisor was patient with me.  He taught me step by step how to use the piece of equipment I had been given to make the most extraordinary toolmakers.  He told me how he had started by responding to a sign, just as I had.  He, too, had started work in this very department making toolmakers.  We laughed together when I made mistakes and he told stories about how he had done the same thing, or something more outrageous.  He always showed me where to find help in the instruction manual so as to avoid repeating my mistakes or making other similar ones.

"After my initial training I became my own supervisor.  I was certified 'RESPONSIBLE AND COMPETENT.'  I got a badge with those words written under what looked like one of my tools.  I was so proud of that badge."

The old man absent-mindedly rubbed his sleeve against an imaginary badge on his lapel.

"That badge was the beginning of my advancement at the factory.  That badge created ambition in my life.  It made me dissatisfied with only making tools.  I wanted to understand the workings of the factory and wear one of the rarer badges.

"I worked extra hard making tools.  I was always above quota even though I was extra careful to assemble them perfectly.  I always told the folks in town what a good factory I worked at. I guess I bragged a bit about how good our tools were.  I was really proud of my work.  Other fellows came to work at the factory because of the things I had told them about it.

"After a while my former supervisor asked me to help him train a new worker.  It was easy for me to do.  I just helped him like my instructor had helped me.  I really enjoyed that.  I gave this new guy on of the tools I had made.  I felt like a grandpa watching him use a tool made by my tool to produce more tools. Sorta like the Bible with its 'begats' come to life.  'Some tool begat my tool.  My tool begat his tool.  His tool begat some other tool.'"  A grin sneaked across the old man's face.

"Somebody must have liked the way I trained this guy 'cause I got called into the office and given a promotion.  My new badge said 'INSTRUCTOR.'  I guess that idea of the 'begats' did something to me.  I'd think of that and find myself enjoying being an instructor even more than I enjoyed making tools.  I got to thinkin' that someday one of the guys I had trained might become an instructor.  I'd become not only an industrial grandpa but an instructional grandpa, too.

"I guess you can't expect only good times and success.  One of my trainees walked off the job one day.  He just threw down his tool and left.  He said there weren't no point in makin' these darn fool tools!  And he left.

"I never hurt so bad before.  I hadn't ever imagined that anyone could just up and quit.  I couldn't see why anyone would want to quit.  I mean we were making good tools.  The best tools. Our working conditions were good.  Our tools created jobs.  How could anyone say, "There weren't no point?'"  The old man sat pondering that statement as if hearing it for the first time.  He took a deep breath and continued talking.

"Somehow I got on with things.  I tried not to think of my failure.  That's what I called him.  MY failure.  He was a failure if he couldn't become a toolmaker under my instruction.  I just worked a little harder and did a little better with my other trainees.  I learned how to point them in the right direction.  I helped them find satisfaction in a job well done.  I showed them the joy of seeing their tools 'beget' more tools.  "Even unto the third and fourth generation.'"  The old man smiled at the phrase. "Most important I taught them to be content.  Not to question their job.

"The inevitable happened.  I was called into the office again.  I was made a plant manager.  I was in charge of recruiting, training and production.  The factory was expanding.  I was contributing to that expansion.  Success.  That was the word I heard.  I liked it.  I worked hard and gave my best.

"And so that's the story of my life.  It's been a good life.  I worked hard.  I did a satisfying, useful job.  I contributed something.  I made toolmakers.  And taught others to use those toolmakers to make more toolmakers.  And trained others to teach others to use those toolmakers to make more toolmakers. And recruited others to be trained by those I had trained to train others to train still others to use toolmakers to make more toolmakers to make more toolmakers to make more toolmakers . . .

"OH, my God!"

The old man sat silently in the witness chair staring at the toolmaker in his hand as the Judge passed sentence.