One morning this past April, in a light rain and a steady wind, my daughter and I were walking just below Neahkahnie Mountain on the North Coast of Oregon. The beach was long and wide, the endlessly crashing waves were loud, the sky was layered in gray, and we were almost alone. But then two figures came into view, and as we neared them, we could see that they were crouching, or kneeling, and separated from each other by twenty yards or so. They wore rain gear and hats beneath their hoods, and they were positioned just above where the waves ended, where driftwood and other deposits from the sea had come to rest. Next to each of these figures was a white five-gallon bucket, into which the two seemed to be dropping something harvested from amid the sand and wood and other detritus.
I walked with curiosity toward the closer of the two. He was so focused on the ground in front of him that he didn’t see me until I was about ten feet away. He was seated on the sand and bent over, his torso curved, passing his hand slowly through the wood, bull kelp, sand, and other materials. He would occasionally grab with his fingertips at some small item—I couldn’t make out what—and turn to drop what he’d picked up into the bucket just behind him. He looked up at me.
“Can I ask,” I said, “what you’re doing, what you’re collecting?”
“Little pieces of plastic,” he said, and gestured toward the bucket, which, almost empty, appeared to hold several dozen dime-sized pieces scattered across the bottom.
“That,” I said, “is a Sisyphean task.” He broke into a broad grin, and then he went back to it.
This encounter reminded me of another encounter several years earlier. I was returning from a visit with family in Israel and found myself seated on the plane next to a man a little older than me who was composing a report on his laptop. He was consulting a stack of notes, concentrating with the kind of effort you don’t often see on planes. Only as we started to descend did he close his computer, at which point I asked with apologies what he was working on. A report on the state of Palestinian–Israeli relations, he said. I asked a few follow-up questions, and he answered clearly and politely. He had been working on this for most of his adult life—going on three decades.
Before long I asked the question he must have heard all the time: did he think, based on his years of experience and attention, that things were getting better? Were there signs of hope? He told me without a pause or any visible emotion that in his view things were getting worse, that there were few signs of hope. At this point the wheels were out and we were about to touch down.
“Well,” I said, “this may be a lot to ask, but how can you devote your life to this? How does it feel to believe that it’s getting worse and continue to do this work?”
This time he did pause. And then he said, “sometimes the most important fights are the ones you know you’re going to lose.”
I have these two encounters in mind as I think about the work that many people I know are committed to, and sometimes as I think about my own work. And I wonder: What do you work on and why do you work on it? How do you know if your work will matter or what it will mean? When should you keep at it, and what are you hoping for, when you have hope?
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