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It requires a company of angels to keep any single one of us in the life to which we are accustomed. We are each like a tightrope walker who thinks she’s balancing by sheer skill, only to find a forest of hands supporting each end of her horizontal pole and some gentle shoulders keeping her ankles steady.
Samuel Wells Walk Humbly cover for Soul Enterprise May 2019As we lie in bed, the cotton in our sheets has been picked by low-paid labor; the mattress beneath us has been constructed in a factory whose conditions we seldom imagine. When we rise to take a wash, we use shampoo and soap and toothpaste from countries and conditions and cultures and climates we might shrink from if we ever troubled to discover what they were. We pour a bowl of cereal whose contents have been through many hands before they reached our kitchen, and we find a teabag whose leaves have been garnered by a person stooping for many hours in baking sun for little reward. We finger a phone or switch on a radio, the technical elements of which have been extracted from a mine whose resources dominate the economy and the politics of a country quite possibly overshadowed and pressurized in numerous ways by our own. We head to work or college or school in a car or bus or train, burning fuel laid down over millions of years that can’t be replenished, that is extracted in demanding ways, and whose consumption in large quantities jeopardizes the well-being and even survival of people, wildlife, and the ecosphere across the world and into the indefinite future.
When and if we do work, we find ourselves part of a network of suppliers and customers, equally dependent on both, and subject to the fashions of taste or interest, the swings of the weather or the economy, and the trends of political or social ideology. More tangibly, we find ourselves paralyzed and exasperated if our boss, our colleague, or the person reporting to us is idle, inefficient, selfish, neglectful, incompetent, or disrespectful. We can do almost anything, however challenging, if we can form a good team with those around us; almost nothing, however elementary, if we can’t. When we leave a job it’s the people, not the projects, we remember; if we find joy, it’s because we did something together, with each person playing their part, deepening esteem for respective personalities and roles as we recognize it takes a village to raise a child, or a barn, or a standard.
There are plenty of parts of life we don’t want to see. If we eat an egg, we may prefer to ignore the conditions in which the chicken has been confined. If we enjoy a beef steak or veal cutlet or leg of lamb, we may close our eyes to the nature of an animal’s life, the conditions of its transport, the nature of an abattoir. We may be careful how we divide up our organic, recyclable, and general waste, but we may not ever behold the realities of how trash is disposed of; the kinds of work involved; the smells, dirt, and discomforts of doing so. We seldom ask whose sweat produced our shoes, our computer, our shirt (which we boast of having bought so cheaply); and we scarcely pause to consider, when we get a bargain, which link in the supply chain got no reward this time. ◆

Excerpted from Walk Humbly: Encouragements for Living, Working, and Being by Samuel Wells ©2019 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.
Samuel Wells is Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in the Church of England, Trafalgar Square, London. He has written or contributed to scores of books.