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.