Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Dignity of Work: Thoughts on Labor Day

Tomorrow is Labor Day, a national holiday and for many a much needed day of rest. Some folks will have a barbecue, others will play games or read, and quite a few will take a long nap - just because they can. Quite a large percentage of the workforce view "the job" as a necessary evil in order that they may enjoy the other parts of their lives. It was not meant to be this way, not at least according to my mother.

Mom always said that work was honorable, that it was one of the ways God allows us to participate in life and demonstrate the gifts He has given us. It was a way to contribute to the common good. Since I was a bit of a smart-mouthed teen at the time, I reminded Mom that God had said that man would have to earn his living by the sweat of his brow as a punishment for his disobedience in the garden. What about that?

She smiled a little at my brash assessment of God's intentions and told me that God had intended for work to be a blessing. It was our working conditions that became difficult as a result of disobedience. She further explained that God put man in the garden to "work it and to dress it" well before man sinned. In other words, work is good. Admittedly, our working conditions often are not. She would know, since as an LVN (licensed vocational nurse) she often did the toughest jobs in the hospital. Once while tending a mental patient, she was hit in the head with a stainless steel water pitcher, as the thanks she got for her service. She took pride in her work as a nurse but she sometimes deplored her working conditions.

I cannot remember when I first began to work, but I clearly remember the first time I got paid for doing it. I had received a little weaving loom as a birthday gift, along with a bag of nylon loops with which one could weave potholders. There was a choir concert coming up at school, for which a certain type of blouse was required. I was in the choir but I did not have the necessary blouse, and I knew my mother could not afford to buy it for me. She was raising me and my two younger sisters largely by herself.

So I made as many potholders as the materials I had allowed me to make and asked Mom if I could try to sell some of them. (I had not told her about the blouse because she had enough to worry about.) She said, "Sure. Go ahead." So I trotted door-to-door offering my wares at one for fifteen cents and, in a stroke of marketing savvy - for a nine year old - two for twenty-five cents. I figured most hot pans had two handles and most housewives would need two potholders to do the job right. I sold out in less than two days and went to the dime store to buy another bag of loops. Sold all those, too, and at the end of the week I asked my Mom if I could go buy a blouse I had seen in a store window with my money. She never knew how worried I was about not having the right thing to wear to the concert - and it all worked out just as I had hoped. It was probably the proudest three dollars and fifty cents I ever earned.

I also remember feeling so pleased when a potholder turned out straight and true with no bumps or missed warps or woofs. It was a thrilling moment when a buyer would remark on the nice color combination in my products, as she dug out a quarter to buy a couple of them. And then the joy of obtaining the desired blouse - well, now that was something. I decided work was good.

Congress enacted Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894, choosing the first Monday in September to pay tribute to the "creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom and leadership - the American worker." (Dave Kansas, Getting Going, Wall Street Journal columnist - Sacramento Bee, Sept. 5, 2010.)

Hmmmm. That explains a lot of our problems in the workplace right there. We think we are the creator of our own value and talent and freedom. It is one thing for a nine year old to think she has accomplished her desired objective "all by herself", conveniently forgetting that the loom and loops were gifts in the first place; and that someone had to show her how to use them before she could accomplish anything. But for full-grown adults to be enamored of this kind of juvenile self-delusion, well now that is just sad, isn't it? Hubris doesn't begin to describe it.

I am retired, so Labor Day this year won't hold the same relief for me as it will for those still laboring away at their chosen or required tasks. However, I still can identify with that sense of relief, although I now do so in a different context. It is the relief that comes from knowing that I don't have to figure it all out. I do not have to be the one who makes it all turn out okay, for myself or any one else. "For god has made us what we are, created in Christ Jesus to do those good deeds {works} which he planned for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10 - Phillips New Testament in Modern English.)

So whatever it is that you do, from nursing to national security, whether tinkering or tailoring, accounting or acrobatics, give it the best that you've got. Do it "heartily as unto the Lord." You won't regret it and others will be blessed by your efforts. Meanwhile, tomorrow get some rest. Happy Labor Day!

Life is real, life is earnest!

And the grave is not the goal;

Dust thou art to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

.... Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait. (by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

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