Justin Jackson teaching a class.

The World Our Rose: Work and Responsibility

Written by Casey Gregg

You shouldn’t leave Hillsdale or your study of the beautiful without encountering a small children’s book: The Little Prince.  It might be your favorite text from French Lit; it might be the unexpected ending to an Existentialism class with Dr. Jackson.  Regardless, it is a book for the wise that should not be missed.  In it, a young boy, undisturbed by the distractions of adult life, gives himself to a few simple concerns like watching a sunset and taming a fox.  And one of his delights is faithfully tending the single little rose that lives on his planet.

It is fascinating that in a modern culture filled with every imaginable convenience, we are somewhat addicted to “tending.”  Why is gardening all the rage when you can pick up fully-grown A-Z produce any day for next to nothing?  Why has there been a sudden resurrection of patching old clothes and re-sewing buttons when we could just as easily replace this old pair of pants with a newer one?  We gleefully make our own yogurt and raise chickens in our front yards and seem to have become our grandmothers overnight. Why in a world of advanced technology and unmatched innovation do we still take refuge in these antiquated habits?

Matthew Crawford, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, notes this rising trend amongst modern youth and suggests that it is not, as it might have been a century ago, an act of economic need, but something far more significant:

“The home economics of our grandmothers is suddenly cutting-edge chic—why should this be?  In hard economic times, we want to be frugal. Frugality requires some measure of self-reliance—the ability to take care of your own stuff.  But the new interest in self-reliance seems to have arisen before the specter of hard times. Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it.”

This is a crucially important truth: something in us needs to be responsible for things, things as significant as a family or as fragile as a single kale plant (or one little rose). It strikes me that Hillsdale students have an innate predisposition towards this urge: we read a book and thereafter lovingly consider it our own; we are called to be responsible for each human soul we encounter; we understand the power and dearness of responsibility. But I wonder if we are ready to see this act of responsibility as one of the great beauties of the world beyond student life. We perhaps ignorantly consider our college years the period of quintessential responsibility, when we care most for the things that matter most, and we consider the working world a rough transplantation which will leave us with little of significance to care for; but perhaps we forget that as students, we forfeit so many opportunities to tend: we do not craft our own meals or refurbish our own home; we do not raise our own children or even clean our own bathroom. Students are, in many ways, tenants of the world of responsibility, living transiently off of the tending of others so as to give themselves wholly to one beautiful yet limited pursuit.

It strikes me that Hillsdale students may fear the “real” world in part because in order to survive it, one must care a great deal about small things. One must buy one’s groceries, fix one’s car, endure mundane office days, constantly clean away the smudges and smears of daily life. And this is not special. Everyone has a job, breaks cars, eats. Everyone makes messes and cleans them up. Not everyone understands Aristotle, loves Dostoevsky, or has been sharpened by Lewis. Our move into the working world poses the risk of dwindling significance. But here, the Little Prince teaches us something important. Late in the story, he travels to another planet and encounters a field of 5,000 roses, and for the first time he must acknowledge that his is not the only rose in the universe as he had thought. This existential moment threatens to undo the whole story and to deem his life and his love a colossal waste. But he comes to realize that the rose he tends is of monumental importance not because it is the only rose in the world, but because it is his rose, because he has cared for it and loved it. And thus it is “unique in all the world.”

The Little Prince teaches us that a thing is beautiful because we tend it, and that our life is valuable because tending has changed and tamed us. As a wise fox tells the Little Prince, “It is the time that you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” As you look into your future, which in all likeliness looks very different from your present, don’t too quickly cast aside endeavors that look like a waste. Instead, take heart! The world ahead is abundant with things to tend, things for which we take responsibility, things for which we waste our time that become the most important part of who we are.