Practices From the Inside Out: Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?

Practices From the Inside Out: Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day? August 31, 2019

Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?

Some of us have little or no understanding of what Labor Day is about.

Labor Day has come to mean the unofficial end of summer. This weekend is the traditional beginning of the college football season. Some companies tell us we celebrate Labor Day by buying mattresses or trucks. Many of us see Labor Day as one last opportunity to get away before fall really starts.

It seems a little ironic for our country to have a holiday to celebrate the value of labor. We live in a time when many different issues and questions divide us. Some of the most longstanding divisions in our culture are the differences between management and labor.

For example, studies show CEOs of 350 top corporations are paid 278 times the compensation their employees receive.

This weekend is the 125th anniversary of Labor Day’s adoption as a national holiday in 1894. Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day a public holiday in 1887.

In 1909 the American Federation of Labor designated the Sunday preceding the holiday as “Labor Sunday” to highlight the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. Unfortunately we focus more attention on selling things at Labor Day sales than on the spiritual value of the labor people perform.

Some of us like to believe hard work is its own reward. People who put in a good day’s work each day become stronger, more experienced workers.

Other people experience hard work as a form of punishment. They believe we are earning our own redemption, working our way back into God’s good graces.

What does the work we do tell us about spiritual life? Is the value of our labor only in how much people are willing to pay us to do it? Do we celebrate labor on Labor Day?

How Do We Celebrate Labor Day?

For a long time I believed I chose the work I did.

One of my lifelong values is justice. I went to school, deciding what to study to move in the direction I had set for myself.

After school, I submitted resumes and interviewed for positions. Each job I took was a revelation. They each taught me significant truths about myself, about justice, about spiritual life. Some were delightful and some were difficult. There were jobs I loved doing even when I was part of a dysfunctional organization.

I gained experience and I gained insight.

My understanding was work was like driving. Some people like to drive on a two-lane country road even though they risk getting stuck behind a slow moving vehicle. Other people speed along on a six-lane freeway. Some people end up pulled over with a flat tire or an engine breakdown waiting for help.

I thought I could choose where and how I drove.

There were times when what I did was not what I had chosen. I began to recognize not everything was within my control. Some of my most rewarding work experiences did not fit into my intentionally calculated plans.

I began to notice places not on my carefully chosen itinerary where I might want to drive.

Slowly I began to appreciate my work actually chose me. Some work I thought I had chosen to do was not really what I wanted. I found myself on a different road than I had expected to take.

We celebrate Labor Day, and our own labor, when we seek and find the work which has chosen us.

Labor Day is not about buying mattresses or trucks, the end of summer or the beginning of college football. We celebrate labor when we value what people do.

We Celebrate Labor Everyday

I was told work was supposed to be hard. You knew it was “work” because you would not do it unless someone paid you for it. Work was not intended to feel good; it was intended to be productive.

People told me the reward for working was financial. If we work hard five or six days a week for 30 or 40 years, we can retire to do what we really want to do.

You could take satisfaction in doing your work well, but there was nothing to be proud of in merely meeting expectations.

I see labor differently. We celebrate labor by appreciating the deeper spiritual aspects of the actions we take. Work is about translating our deepest selves into practice. Labor is how we share our core values with other people.

Work is more than surviving until we can retire. Labor is more like breathing in and breathing out, finding unforced rhythms of life and grace. Work balances with rest and play. Our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits work in concert. Doing work is a way of being.

Work is rain falling on the surface of a lake. Our labor sends out ripples which continue to spread even when we pause in our own efforts.

How We Celebrate Labor Today

This weekend can be the beginning of how we will celebrate labor for years to come.

We can begin to recognize and celebrate labor as a spiritual practice. Our practice begins with opening our minds and hearts to the deep rhythms of spiritual life and how we work in the world. We begin to celebrate labor by appreciating it is how we put our values into practice.

Like many good spiritual practices we begin by pausing to take a deep breath and reflect.

What does our experience tell us about how to celebrate labor?

How do we recognize and appreciate the value of the labor we witness all around us each day?What is one practice we can begin this year, this Labor Day, to help us remember?

As we find a way to celebrate labor and commit ourselves to practicing it we will discover new ways to explore why we do what we do. Our new practice will open doors for us to celebrate in new ways.

Why do we celebrate Labor Day this weekend?

How will we continue to celebrate labor this week?

[Image by erix!]

Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is and his email address is

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