Lessons from Doc: #6 Learn to like work and enjoy the satisfaction of doing your job as well as it can be done

Doc founded the Teton Valley Boys Ranch in the 1960s on the idea that work was inherently valuable and that boys needed to learn to like it. I don’t know why girls were not included in his objectives. He never spoke about this, as far as I know. Certainly there was only so much he could do with one ranch and one idea, but his successor and one of my heroes, Dick Jacobsen, bought the property years later and reinstituted the boys ranch and then created a girls and family ranch on the other side of Teton Valley that my own daughter and then our whole family recently had the privilege of attending. No doubt somewhere Doc is smiling.

Doc had written a dissertation on the philosophy of Max Weber and was, I suppose, attracted to the notion of the Protestant work ethic. Because of my exposure to Doc’s ranch, many years later as I read Wendell Berry’s devastating critique of the denigration of work and of the body in The Unsettling of America, I instinctively recognized this as the sermon Doc had been giving, almost without words, at the ranch. And what was the work? Usually it involved a variety of tasks of hard physical labor, starting with the construction of the camp itself and its facilities in the early years and continuing with the work of upkeep of a large forest—including cutting down and skinning trees for fence posts—planting and weeding a large garden, service projects for needy widows in Teton Valley, work for local ranchers, and the upkeep of the Boys Ranch itself—laundry, cooking, shopping, repairs.
Doc never said much about whether he attached a particularly Mormon spin to the idea of work, but it is not hard to imagine that Doc saw work as redemptive. I know he used to say that prisoners ought to work and serve, not as punishment, but as opportunities to experience empowerment and selflessness. He never wanted to give up on people, which is why he also opposed capital punishment. The most religious idea associated with work I remember Doc teaching was from the Bhagavad Gita: “To action alone hast thou a right, not to its fruits.” This is heretical to the dogma of the American Dream, of course. Doc meant by this that it was hubris to expect specific consequences from my labors—there was wisdom and humility in accepting the fact that consequences had less to do with me and more with circumstance, grace, serendipity perhaps, and certainly the collective work of others. I think I hear echoes of Doc’s thinking in Massachusetts Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren when she reminds us that the so-called “self-made man” is more dependent on the labor of others than he would like us to believe. In its emphasis on the holiness of the body, the holiness of physical experience, and the divine potential of all human endeavors, LDS belief is about as work- and body-friendly as beliefs come, but it is also true that the seductions of capitalism have led us to neglect the communitarian work ethic of the beehive with which the LDS religion began. Work, for Doc, had to have a purpose beyond self-interest; its greatest objective was to forget oneself on behalf of others and on behalf of something larger than oneself.
Doc never used the language of getting ahead, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, or becoming the self-made man. I heard plenty of that from my own grandfather, a man whom I loved intensely but to whose philosophy I ultimately could not subscribe. He was a peer of Doc’s and knew him, but I often sensed he didn’t quite understand all of the admiration for him. He had grown up a somewhat destitute farmer and brick mason in Salt Lake valley only to become an MBA and a successful banker in New York City in the middle of the Great Depression. My grandfather certainly knew how to work physically hard and appreciated others who did as well, but he was more typically American than Doc in his view that the overall objective of American progress was to leave most needs for manual work behind. He did have a garden, and he was an excellent gardener, but he saw the world in hierarchical terms and mainly admired those who were trying to work themselves out of their circumstances. I never heard admiration for those who preferred simple, low-paying professions, artistic production and education, or working with their hands, and least of all for those who appeared unable to extract themselves from a blue collar world.
For Doc, the value of work was in the act of submission to a process of making that consumed us and that enjoined us to one another and to the world, as well as forged a union of body and spirit. For Doc, every job required skills and every job done well required an accomplishment akin to art. You knew you were succeeding in the task when you found yourself gaining aptitude and efficiency as you lost a consciousness of the difficulty of the work and let instinct take over. This is when you found yourself falling into a kind of rhythm with the tools and materials in your hands. And this was not usually achieved on an individual basis merely; work was a collective effort and it was always valuable in a relational context. As I think back on those years at the ranch, I knew something was happening when a group of boys would begin making up songs, jokes, or legends associated with the work in question and when they began to see themselves as working as a collective whole. Eventually a kind of internally driven but shared competitiveness would take over, just for the pride and pleasure of seeing how well the work could be done. And as the summer wore on, our bodies as well as our environments were mutually transformed.
I wasn’t exactly a city slicker, even though that was what one of the local ranchers liked to call us, but I had been living in a well-heeled bedroom community in Connecticut that knew little of subsistence labor, the need for fundamental service, or the value of sweat brought on by something other than exercise. I suppose my friends wondered if I had done something wrong to deserve to be sent off to the wilds of Idaho to work on a ranch. What they didn’t know was the best kept secret of the camp. We had to work twenty hours a week, every week morning for four hours, and the rest of the time was spent in Teton Valley—one of the most beautiful places in America—hiking, fishing, jumping on the trampoline, horseback riding, and holding evening discussions, debates, and skits—learning to like all the other things Doc spoke of. And we got a pay check at the end of the summer for our labors. It didn’t matter that the $50 I received at the conclusion of the summer was not a lot of money, only $.63 an hour as I now calculate it; I have never experienced quite the same sense of satisfaction in earning so little.
We were put on different work crews, usually for an entire week, and this gave us an opportunity to learn new skills, to work with a different set of boys and counselors. I yearned for the chance to weed with Doc in the garden, but once I did, I discovered he was not much for conversation. He was normally not all that talkative, but in the garden he focused almost zen-like on the tasks at hand. So it turned me away from my ever busy imagination and helped me to learn to forget myself and forget my dreams of what Adam Miller, in his wonderful essay on “Groundhog Day,” has called a “frictionless” world. Miller writes:
“Heaven? Where people are still married, still work, still have children, still change diapers, still share casseroles? Heaven, for Mormons, is what seals our union with the mundane rather than terminates it. Leave it to Mormonism to see the nihilistic claim that there is nothing but the aching specificity of this repetition and raise it to the power of infinity. Leave it to Mormonism to claim that even in heaven we’ll have to button and unbutton our shirts, show all our work, suffer paper cuts, and—of course, forever and ever gain—breathe.”
I know Doc used to say that as he grew closer to death, he was less interested in heaven and salvation and more interested in simply continuing the work he had already begun. I might have winced hearing him say this, because at that point in my life heaven was just beginning to become a real desire of my heart. But I now see that Doc didn’t mean anything heretical by this. Quite the opposite, because he understood that heaven’s use to us is to get our heads up from the trough of life long enough to see that earth work is what we should most desire. To paraphrase Robert Frost’s peerless poem, “Birches,” sometimes we need to get away from life for a while only to discover that earth’s the right place for us. What Christianity for so long thought signaled our alienation from God—our bodies and the messy conditions of this world that require sweat and pain and sorrow and effort—were all along the means of our salvation and the very substance of our heaven.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00466860937596192472 NoSurfGirl

    I agree. And yet, I feel a little bit of despair reading this, because it is so difficult to get manual labor back into the routine, particularly when there are babies to be looked after who like to be picked up every twenty minutes or so :) We just bought a home with minimal landscaping. We've rented the last (however many) years and having to get outside and do long hours of projects is a new thing for us, something we're still getting used to.

    This strikes home for me. I think a lot of our problems with health stem from the fact that God built us for hard work outside, and we spend our days trapped in front of screens.

    Loved the alternative view of the virtue of work… not for the fruits, but for the work itself. I agree that the idea that our "fruits" of labor mean not having to work as hard later is a pretty messy one. Someone always has to be doing the hard stuff. We should all be doing each kind of work, every day. The day that we're not spending much time working with our hands is the day that we're not fulfilling the measure of our creation as well. Of course there are exceptions… those who've been born incapable of physical labor, but for the most part I think Heavenly Father intended for us to use our muscles to do hard work.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15150602938830003555 George

    Thanks for the thoughts. Picking up babies is serious manual labor, so I don't think that kind of work is excluded by any means. I remember Amy and I regularly having back problems when our kids were younger. There is something perhaps too male about this definition of work that could be expanded to include all of the physical force, spontaneity, and energy that are involved in making a home on the earth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10560927736287248075 Jacob M

    Just want to say I love this series. They've made me think deeper about many of the things that I already like (ie. books and nature) and see them in new ways. I'm also looking at things that I don't like so much (ie. people, as driving on Southern California freeways tends to give me a disposition not to like them) in a new light. Thank you so much for writing these, and inspiring Kristine to write about them as well!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11093597589318942694 Jim F.

    Thanks for this, George. I plan to use it as a reading in my "The Good Life" class next winter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15150602938830003555 George

    Thanks, Jacob. So glad it has been useful.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05672354044132731036 Bob Weatherford

    There is certainly a deep satisfaction in manual labor that is impossible to replicate in other forms of labor. (The opposite is also true, I suppose–there is a pleasure in intellectual endeavors that is also irreplicable.)

    I guess the trick is to find balance, right? Ever since Environmental Humanities, I have incorporated having fruit trees, a large garden, hens, and maybe a goat as part of my "life dream" and goal for the home I will one day make in the future when I put down my permanent roots. It just often feels like so many forces of the modern economy and society oppose this–the pressure to specialize, the pressure to disdain manual labor, the funny looks my friends give me when I tell them I want named hens. :) Do you feel you've been able to incorporate the lessons and the joys of your days at the Teton Valley Boys Ranch into your adult life? I'd love your thoughts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15150602938830003555 George

    Bob, writing these posts has brought me back to his lessons and forced me to measure myself against them. I haven't always liked how I measure up. I think some of them might need some updating but not too much since they seem pretty timeless to me. I try to approach these principles with respect and try to make adjustments and improvements where and when necessary, but I also don't beat myself up over them. I think we just try our best, learn from the example of others, and keep striving to live well. There are many ways to live well. I wish I had more integrity and consistency in the way I live, but maybe some of these things take a lifetime…