Daylilies remind me of that Biblical phrase: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” Those hardy flowers seem to effortlessly take over spaces which other plants ignore. A shimmering patch can choke out surrounding weeds and seem almost a beautiful mirage on a barren hillside. Yet the darker side is that each bloom, as the name declares, is on display for only 24 hours before it shrivels and gives way to another.
For years, hedonists have seized on that saying to explain why work is not necessary. Let life flow, and there will be enough for everyone. Of course, this flies in the face of daily evidence _ sitting around like a dumb plant does not create a happy human. We have wants and needs and even satisfactions from accomplishing things. Work is a valuable part of social humanity.
Industrialization arrived with memes of Spenserian Darwinism. Nature red in tooth and claw, life brutal nasty and short. An early hardworking bird gets the worm, the rest starve. Evolution constantly drives out the weak and badly-fitted, hardworking folks are just like top predators. Most must be sacrificed so that the few can lead the species forward into some imagined wonderful future. And, by selfish extension, the wealthy and powerful can rest happily assured that they are the most fit, the smartest laborers, and the spearhead of nature’s ascent.
Daylilies, like everything alive, are an endpoint of evolutionary “struggle.” I suppose the species got tough as the weak shriveled. Yet, as the example of the dinosaurs prove, some survival is dumb luck. Some of the dumb luck enjoyed by daylilies (and many invasive species) is the massive ecological engineering done by people, including planting them. And although flowers and trees are (we are assured) always engaged in a competition for scarce resources, day by day and hour by hour the life of a giant oak or a daylily patch hardly seems as terrifying or exhausting as Hobbesian theory predicts. Maybe our own jobs should reflect that observation.
Which brings me to the evangelistic American religion of work. Social Darwinists neatly summarize that as society becomes perfect, capitalism will assure that the worthy become wealthy, the poor deserve their poverty, action leads to improvement, and, in short, a working job is the stigmata of our revealed holiness. When people refuse to work, society crumbles. When people fail to recognize the legitimacy of wealth as held by the current elite, civilization will collapse. No medieval kings nor Assyrian priests ever expressed basic conservatism better.
I did what I consider my share of socially approved work, and was adequately rewarded. I put in a lot of hard labor, but I also recognize I benefited from a big mixture of dumb luck, including my basic genetic mixture and birth situation. Since I retired I continue to pursue projects and localized unpaid tasks, which give me personal reward. I remain open-minded about the current American system.
What is individual purpose, how is a life judged? That is the proper function of any religion, including obsessive capitalism. Sometimes, meditating on flowers, beauty seems enough. Other times, watching an osprey snag a fish, beauty alone seems strained. I have no answers, and in lovely summer I often even stop asking questions. My mind becomes just another short-lived flower of the moment.