As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.
These lines from Franz Kafka’s sobering (and, frankly, nauseating) The Metamorphosis tell the story of a normal working man who wakes up one morning to find that he is a dung beetle. He has been supporting his parents and sister but is obviously unable to go to work as long as he remains a beetle. At first, the family cares for him. Then, it’s only his sister. Finally, they give up on him and he dies of starvation.
It is one of the most tragic stories I have ever read. Yet there is an important observation here. As long as we are productive, we are valuable. As soon as we are unable to produce, however, we lose our value. We die, so to speak. Kafka (in my interpretation) was lamenting this. I suspect this is true because, at the close of the story, he writes these lines:
While they were thus conversing, it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they became aware of their daughter’s increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.
Brilliantly, Kafka moves from the male source of productive identity (profession) to the female source (physical beauty… certainly in 1915, when the story was published and, from any observation of pop-advertising, today as well). She is now their source of production. She is now of utmost value whereas Gregor had lost his. And the cycle continues.
Some questions that may arise: Am I a machination in society (the free market or the collective) or am I the object of love apart from what I produce? Am I a replaceable cog or am I a person? Am I valuable? Really?
Speaking with a psychologist friend of mine recently, I learned that the children of alcoholics often display an uncanny ability to self-destruct throughout their lives. I suppose I had seen it but never made the connection. Addicts themselves lose the ability to function as they dig their well to the bottom. I have known divorced people who have slept for two years straight from grief. Have they lost their value? To the outside world, they have. And perhaps to their family. Make no mistake about it.
I personally remember a conversation with a past boss of mine that was along these lines. I had made a mistake, and he came into my office. He said to me, “I want you to know that I totally support you…” (a wave of relief overtook me) “… as long as you produce.” I felt like my chest was caving in. Then, it occurred to me. Life is quid pro quo. All the time. Your worth is directly correlated to the quality of your output.
But, for all the production and its costs, after the lights go off, come back on again, then go off for good, we see, in the pages of the New Testament, a Man who is addressing Himself to those who have been ejected by the centrifuge of society and history. The otherwise anonymous, ignored, and reviled. The ones contributing very little, if anything, “of value.” That Man happened to be God Himself. And that turns everything on its ear.