The love you liberate in your work is the only love you keep.
A few weeks prior to my dissertation defense–after I had met with each committee member, made countless changes, lived night and day with the pages of writing and calculations as my constant companions–I began to occupy my mind with details of the big day. It made me nervous to keep rehearsing, so I occupied my mind by pondering what thank you gift I wanted to give my chair and committee members. One day, while avoiding mental anguish during the final countdown to dissertation, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to give each of my mentors a copy of my personal motto, “The love you liberate in your work is the only love you keep.”
This motto is attributed to Elbert Hubbard, the founding member of the Roycrofters. For those less familiar, the Roycrofters were a group of artisans who lived in rural, upstate New York near where I was raised. The Roycrofters were part of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century. This movement focused on the integration of “Head, Hand, and Heart” in a way that produced high quality crafted products with a philosophical and even spiritual dimension of meaning. The Roycrofters emphasized personal, high-labor quality production as a revolt against rapid, mass-produced industrialization. The care and time with which products were made imbued the items with the spirit and care of the crafter. The works of the Roycrofters are classic, beautiful pieces of American furniture, pottery, and metal work.
I grew up a few miles away from the Roycroft campus, but the movement really wasn’t part of my awareness until my adult life. There was a deep, secular humanism within the Roycroft movement that was spoken about skeptically in the deeply religious circles in which I was raised. I was an adult before I found deep appreciation for the aesthetics of the arts and crafts movement. I have learned that the Roycroft campus once temporarily housed the worship space of the church in which I was dedicated as an infant (that is the ritual used instead of infant baptism in some churches where baptism is a chosen rite reserved for adulthood). I even remember pieces of furniture in the church where I was raised that bore the classic Roycroft design and logo. Roycroft artisans produced works representing quality, excellence, and the simple beauty of hard work done well. I truly believe that it is not just our genes and our families that shape who we are…our environment shapes us, too. In palpable ways, I believe the Roycroft environment helped shape who I am: the spirituality I find emerging within productivity, as well as my foundational identity around work as vocation.
Given that history, it is not surprising that nearing the end of the multi-year research project that was my dissertation, this motto became my constant companion. I sat for long hours, calculating and recalculating my data, or writing and re-writing my findings. I met with the statistician who advised me to conduct multiple attempts at the same result using different calculations to insure I reached the same conclusion. I met with each committee member who brought their own expertise to bear on my research, and I refined my knowledge further. It was as if I was sanding and polishing the product with finer and finer grades of abrasives, allowing the true beauty of the final product to shine through.
Looking back, it makes perfect sense that I had to find the motto to give to my mentors in the academic trade I was learning. I managed to track down an arts and crafts letterpress that produced sets of cards, of which this motto was one. They wouldn’t sell them to me individually. So, I bought six packages of cards which blew my entire gift budget. So be it. They would at least get a card. Later, I found little glass ornaments in the shape of the eye-in-hand in our local art museum that drew me. I realized that these could either be considered as a symbol for being visionary, or for warding off the evil eye. I decided either might be fitting for dissertation committee members, so I added these to the gift. I did get a few odd looks about those. But, the motto universally was appreciated.
I still have my own copy of this motto, framed, in my office. I don’t always feel like my daily labors are filled with love; that would be virtually impossible when I am embroiled in academic politics, or writing the fifteenth iteration of a goal based budget, or responding to the revision of the revision of the revision of a manuscript to integrate minutia-laden feedback from a journal reviewer. But, my motto is there to remind me that these tasks are part of the refinement process, too. My vocational work: my teaching, my writing, my scholarship, my ministry: here I strive daily to liberate love.
The second half of the motto, of course, reminds us what love is for: giving it away. Finishing our work and releasing it to the Universe. Trusting that the “so what” question will be apparent in our results. Giving it to God. However we say it, it is what we must do. Let it go. Allow the wings of our efforts to take flight and carry our work to new places. Liberate the love, without controlling its destiny.
The promise is, we get to reap the reward, to live into the depths of the love we liberate. In giving, we receive. In giving deeply, we receive richly.
Today, as I work with my own doctoral students, this motto takes on deeper meaning. My investment in them isn’t about the product they produce, or the grade they receive. It is about the meaning created and released in the work we undertake together. It is about the quality of the relationship, and the strength of shared knowledge, and how our work together refined that. When we liberate that love in our work, we gain so much more than we give.