The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (5/7/2014)
In his book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Savala recounts a conversation with an executive at Google in which Saval asked the executive about the “favorite hangout spot” in their complex of cubed offices. Saval guessed that it would be the fresh juice bar. The executive replied that it wasn’t the fresh juice so much as it was to the juice bar’s floor-to-ceiling windows, letting in a glimpse of “the green and the California late afternoon springtime sun” and also “It’s the proximity to nature.”
The cubed office workers at Google experienced the same thing that animates gardeners, a proximity to nature, only the folks at Google were looking through “a glass, darkly,” not savoring a “face to face” taste of a fresh tomato. As with so much of our modern digital life, it was second-hand.
The fact is that human beings were hunters and gatherers for a much longer time than they’ve been cubed in offices. Human systems are more attuned to the natural world than the unnatural. God designed us to live in a garden with its fresh air, grass, flowers, vegetables, fruits, and trees, not sterile, colorless workspaces. This connection with nature is even built in to our shoes and boots. Many of them have a thin, soft layer in the foot-bed replicating the feel of walking on grass. Human feet were not designed for concrete or asphalt but grass and soil.
It’s not only the cubes, but it’s also the bland colors of the cubes that make modern offices so harmlessly ominous, putting distance between modern human beings and their psychic and physical nature. Sitting in a downtown restaurant, two young women were having dinner together, not talking to each other, but diddling with their i-Pads. I wondered if they’d lost the ability to hold a conversation, much less say hello. One of my first assignments while interning at UCLA’s Neuro-psychiatric Institute was to take five or six patients out onto
Boulevard and teach them how to look at strangers
in the eye, smile and say hello, such as checkers at a supermarket. They had lost contact with what we call
The “reality” with which they had lost contact is the stuff of a garden. It was the reality of the hunters and gatherers. This contact with reality is also one of the reasons so many people have cats and dogs in their homes. Stroking the soft fur on a dog’s back is a far more spiritually rewarding experience than staring at a screen and mashing keys.
Cicero, the great Roman orator, said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” He probably should’ve added a bed and a kitchen, but there it is, a garden. Gardening, amongst other things, is a proximity to nature, and without that proximity we lose our contact with reality. This is why it is so puzzling to see yards covered with gravel, bearing a dreadful similarity to the cubed office, harmlessly ominous, devoid of reality.
It’s not that anyone wants to return to the marginal life of the hunters and gatherers, literally living from hand to mouth every day of their lives. It is that in the evolutionary scheme of creation our souls and our bodies developed to respond to a reality we call nature. One of the corrosive effects of civilization, in addition to its many artificial splendors, is a gradual alienation from that reality. The cubed office is a prime example. As I sat in that restaurant watching those two young women, the word “android” came to mind.
A garden, along with cats and dogs, connects, not approximates, us with the reality that makes us human. No romantic “return to nature,” a garden is a necessity amidst all the faux alternate virtual realities enveloping of souls. A floor to ceiling window is not enough. Along with the pathos of the fall of the man and the woman, the idyllic “hunters and gatherers” theme embedded in the story of the Garden of Eden is a profound metaphor for an understanding of our humanity.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2014