The Value of Labor

The other day, I participated with a group of students in a day of service.  Our assignment was to add mulch to a newly created trail, and we pitchforked the stuff from a pile into wheelbarrows and then rolled loads some distance to where the trail needed it.

The day was hot.  The pitchforks were unwieldy.  The mulch was dense and smelly.  The distances we pushed these heavy wheelbarrows were great, and the terrain we pushed them over was thick with uncut and uneven grass.  It was challenging.

Within minutes, some students pawed the pile with their pitchforks like children faced with heaping helpings of spinach.  They paused more than they shoveled and soon it was time for a water break and another water break and a conversation with friends or with the nearest teacher about other jobs that weren’t as arduous and should have been spread around.

To be fair, the students didn’t choose this day of service.  It was required.  Part of me doesn’t blame them for recoiling from labor they didn’t seek and didn’t anticipate, but we just wanted them to know what service is, what it means to labor for a cause. We hoped they get a taste for it.

And some did. While some students shirked, others filled wheelbarrows and rolled them away, returning ready to do it again and again.  They smiled.  I worked beside them, filling wheelbarrows as fast and full as I could, trying to set a good example but also simply reveling in it. I walked away exhausted. I knew I’d sleep well that night.

Back on the bus, we teachers looked over our crew to decide whom we’d hire if we were real bosses.  The best candidates dug into the work and did their best without questioning why they ought to. They needed no motivation beyond the task itself. The worst considered the work beneath them, complaining how tired everything made them.

The older I get, the more confused I am about good-tired and bad-tired.  Cleaning the stove exhausts me and so does clearing out my work e-mails and sending piles of paper to their proper file folders. Sometimes everything makes me feel spent.

People say good-tired comes with a sense of accomplishment, but accomplishment is relative and I’m not sure how meaningful it is in the end.  No one with any sense can think rice won’t boil over again or that papers won’t re-gather on your desk.  Even a one-time event—the sort that ought to be an accomplishment, like a marathon or graduation—doesn’t end anything.  Your ambitions stretch until past accomplishments look like youthful flailing, not nearly as purposeful as you thought they were and not nearly as important as what’s next.  You have to do more.

Like everyone else, I sometimes find myself doing daily tasks that continue without question.  My to-do list includes jobs that contribute to bigger jobs that contribute to completing my capital-J Job according to standards I’ve set, but those standards don’t dominate my work life.  Little chores do.  I’m only dimly aware of my ambitions.  Most of the time, I just work.

And I have to look for enjoyment in it.  I feel sorry for anyone who can’t find pleasure in just working.

Oh, I occasionally feel like a mule and pull against my rope—sometimes tedium so overwhelms me I want to cry—but I can also find the simplest work satisfying.  When it comes to work, my best state of mind is doing, not ambition, worth, or even accomplishment.

That’s the only way I know to make exhaustion good.

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2 Comments

Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, life, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

2 responses to “The Value of Labor

  1. I’m working today at home and really resisting it. Maybe the thing to do is what you observe — the best state of mind is just doing. I’m going to give that a try. Happy Labor Day to you. xo

    Don’t get the idea that I’m always capable of it myself, only that, ideally, just working is satisfying. And sometimes I think it’s more of an accomplishment to know when not to work. We often give ourselves too much to do… but maybe that’s another post.

    Thanks for visiting. I’m always so happy to see your flower.

  2. “No one with any sense can think rice won’t boil over again or that papers won’t re-gather on your desk.”

    That is the thinking that makes me argue with myself all the time that I am making the bed.

    I recoil slightly at the idea of selecting workers simply because they ask no questions and buckle down to do your bidding. My reaction is partly due a passing contrary mood, and partly to my own position at work, where I have received the favor of being reassigned for half of every day to a job for which I have neither aptitude nor desire. Simply doing the work because I get paid does not contribute to a Good Tired.

    I know. I know. At least I have a job.

    Yes, I see this both ways–I agree you’re not a very good worker if you only do what you’re told. No one should work mindlessly because that way lies exhaustion and exploitation. I only meant to say that enjoying labor can be a kind of gift. It could be my workaholic tendencies speaking, but, for me, there’s something fundamentally satisfying about productivity and that, properly applied, it can feel redemptive.

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