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

Lessons from Doc: #6 Learn to like work and enjoy the satisfaction of doing your job as well as it can be done June 21, 2012

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.

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