When Laying Bricks Beats Building a Cathedral

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the parable of the bricklayers for myself and others.

You’ve probably heard it before. One worker feels frustrated and annoyed and is doing a half-assed job. When asked what he’s doing, he replies, “Laying bricks.”

Another looks focused, joyous, and in the proverbial flow state. When asked what he’s doing he replies, “Building a cathedral.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is real. It’s a good idea to Start With Why. (See what I did there with the book titles? I know. I’m clever.)

I would be the last person on earth to tell you that connecting your daily activity to a bigger vision and purpose is a bad idea. It’s not only a good idea, it’s a necessary idea for growth and to stave off spiritual decay.

Of course, when you follow the chain upward, you eventually find the Highest Thing. The truth North Star of North stars. The holiest aim above which there is no other. That is the ultimate giver of purpose, and purpose in itself. Always fix your gaze upon it.

But there’s a vast chasm between brushing your teeth and the Most High.

Now if you are rigorous, and patient, and persistent, you can discover the causal chain between any good action (or even merely not bad action) and the ultimate good. Dental hygiene connects to overall physical health and social graces, which enhance your ability to achieve professional goals and maintain relationships, which help you better grow your company or mentor someone, which are ways to put your unique gifts to work, which allows you to be a better imager of the Divine, which brings you closer to Him, etc.

But these causal chains aren’t always obvious. And they always have some gaps, some leaps of faith. You know in your gut that there is a connection between brushing your teeth and achieving your goals, but you just woke up and there’s no way you’ll be able to work it out on the spot. So what do you do? Do you wait until you find your ‘Why?’ to start brushing?

It’s important to note that you can be deceived. Maybe it’s not your gut telling you “This is a good thing that will lead your towards the Light”. Maybe it’s cultural conditioning, status quo bias, unthinking Pavlovian reflex, manipulation, or mind control.

The practice of questioning why you are tooth brushing or bricklaying and whether it is such a good idea after all is crucial. Especially during your intellectual and spiritual coming-of-age phase. You must reject the premises, flip the burden of proof, and see if you don’t uncover some lies and bad ideas.

But most of the time it’s not that lofty or that dangerous. And if you stay stuck in the, “I refuse to do anything I don’t perfectly understand as a necessary step to something higher” phase, you won’t get very far and will likely be no fun to be around.

Everything should be causally connected to something higher. But it’s not necessary to remember how in every moment.

Doing the thing even when you can’t remember exactly how the thing connects to The Thing is called faith. At least that’s the way C.S. Lewis uses the concept of faith. It’s not about believing against the evidence or in spite of lack of evidence, it’s about acting based on beliefs you knew to be true in a moment of clarity, but are tempted to forget in a moment of chaos. Have faith in your former self, your gut, your higher reason, in moments when you’re hangry morning self is unable to muster the connective tissue between the small deed and the great.

I help a company inform people at other companies about problems in their sales process that my company has a tool to solve. Solving other companies sales process problems is, believe it or not, connected to something higher for me. But don’t ask me to spell out how nine days out of ten.

So how to handle those nine days?

Just brush the teeth and do it well.

Just lay the bricks with the most integrity you possibly can.

Just be a good worker, a good colleague, and a good person.

Do the task well because doing a task well is a good thing. Even if I can’t perfectly articulate why it is that I’m doing the task in that moment.

There’s a kind of freedom that comes from this.

Maybe the architect has gone insane. Maybe I’m not building a Cathedral at all. Maybe an earthquake is about to destroy the structure. I can’t know these things and usually can’t control them if I did.

But I know that I embarked on this work for a reason, and I know that today, I’m going to be the best damn bricklayer you’ve ever seen.