To say I have a complicated relationship with work would be an understatement. The picture to the right is a scan of a Peanuts card I bought in the 3rd grade. It is – I think – the oldest of the few childhood mementos I have kept. At that point in my life – and really, up until I left home for good after college – “work” meant my father dragging me out to cut grass or work in his garden… “garden” being another major understatement. You don’t keep an International Farmall to tend a mere garden.
One day when I was either particularly brave or particularly tired, I asked my father “why do I have to do farm work?” I still remember his answer: “I’m trying to teach you responsibility.” I didn’t see how what I considered slave labor had anything to do with responsibility, but I had sense enough not to push it. In total my father was a good guy, but he grew up in the Great Depression in a poor family with eight children and he had little patience with a nerdy kid who wanted to be indoors reading instead of outdoors being a productive worker.
All that farm work did teach me one thing – I learned I wanted no part of manual labor. Any time school got tough – particularly the first quarter of my junior year in college when I wanted to drop out – I remembered working outside in the heat and humidity and I went back to studying.
Unlike some Pagans, I have no romantic ideas about living off the land. The Earth does not give up her bounty with ease. Crops require plowing, planting, watering, weeding, guarding, harvesting and preserving. Animals require feeding, watering, and general care – every day. Sometimes twice a day.
Somebody has to do that work – somebody has to grow the food. Maybe you do it for yourself and more likely you pay someone to do it for you, but somebody has to do it.
And if you’re going to pay someone to grow your food for you – and make your clothes and build your car and produce all the other things you consume – you’re going to have to have some way to make a living.
This is the necessity of work: there are things that have to be done and someone has to do them. And you have to make a living for yourself and those who are counting on you.This isn’t a particularly popular idea these days, but it is a very pagan (lowercase intentional) idea. Our ancient ancestors understood there were things that simply had to be done. You don’t have to like them – you just have to do them.
Today we hear advice like “follow your bliss” and “do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” There is the strong idea in our society that we should all have jobs that are interesting and fulfilling and fun. They should be safe and secure, always challenging but never demanding.
I used to work with a man whose dream was to fly helicopters. He joined the Army out of high school, got into the right training programs, studied hard, worked hard, and qualified to fly Black Hawk helicopters. He had been flying for two years when his father had a heart attack and died. He was given a hardship discharge and went home to run the family butcher shop. Follow your bliss? He did what he had to do.
Most of us do what we have to do. We need to eat, we need a place to live, we have children, spouses, and parents depending on us to provide for them. There are things we want and things we want to do that don’t come free.
And so we work. Perhaps we can find a way to make a living doing what we love. Many of us prepare for a career with college and internships and then hope we can find a paying job in our chosen field. Sometimes we end up taking the best of a limited set of options. If we’re successful we not only do what we have to do, we make it possible to do what we’re called to do.
I like to think I now have a mature relationship with work. If I hit the lottery today I would turn in my notice tomorrow, but I know that’s unlikely – particularly since I haven’t bought a ticket in ten years. I have a job that’s a good match with my skills. It can be stressful at times, but most days the expectations are reasonable. I’ll never get rich, but it pays enough. And it’s all indoors. I am thankful for it.
And I am thankful for those who do the jobs that are dirty, stressful, unpleasant, dangerous and tiring… but necessary. May we remember to honor those who do what must be done.
Happy Labor Day.