I have written two articles about Labor Day in recent years, so I was wondering if I should write another, and then the truth about “work” hit me: this day needs to be recognized, and all those who “labor” certainly earn an annual tip of the cap. Work should be appreciated as an integral part of the way we live and respected by those who serve and are served.
In one of those previous articles I posed the question “Do you live to work or work to live?” In and of itself, that query holds so much fuel for introspection and examination. Does what we do matter? How so? Or do we go through the machinations in order to just attain that paycheck, not caring if we make a difference because in the end our payment is all that matters?
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” If we think about that, then most everyone out there is being paid to degenerate mentally and – if not descending to the point of extinction – get so low as to not care anymore. Have you seen workers that seem lost like that? Sometimes I have, and I walk out of that store or place of business and wish they could find something else to do not just to make money but to be happy.
The problem is most of us have to make money. It is not a choice but a requirement. That brings back the old “work to live” idea. We go from paycheck to paycheck. Shoulder against the wheel. Turn, turn, turn! Ad infinitum.
The great poet Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote of such malaise in labor in the brilliant “Richard Cory”:
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
In this poem the poor people of the local town look up to a wealthy man named Cory, who seems like a king but is gracious and kind. They know nothing else about him, except that they wish that they were in his place. One night he goes home and ends all the speculation about how great it is to be him: he commits suicide. The message is loud and clear: be careful what you wish for and then some.
Whether we are wealthy or not, we all long for something meaningful in life. Work is an extremely important part of that. If we have found something to do that brings joy to our lives, we are doubly blessed. If, like Richard Cory, we have everything monetarily but nothing that counts, then we descend to a dark place where wealth is nothing but a burden, and some face annihilation rather than realize the truth that there is more to life than money. Much more.
Over the course of my working life as an educator, some of the most meaningful and important work I have witnessed being done is by people who don’t get paid a penny: volunteers. I have seen volunteers who work so tirelessly and dedicatedly, you’d want to pay them if you could, but that is the beauty of it: they are there because of something that transcends a weekly paycheck: they reap the benefits of doing work that they love, and their reward is far more glorious than anything with a dollar sign next to it.
There are many people out there who are working to live and some who are living to work. Some must support their families; others a lifestyle. There are those lucky ones who would never call what they do labor: it is done for love and reward beyond anything tangible. There are also those volunteers, the selfless ones who go out of their way to do something for the sake of others without recompense. We celebrate all of these people on Labor Day because what they do matters, no matter how small or big their role is in life.
I learned a good deal from observing my father – a man who ran his own successful business for many years – and this is especially true in relation to ordinary people that he saw working. No matter where we were, he never ceased to thank someone who served him and compliment those who did an outstanding job. He would go out of his way to thank the cashier and the waitress in a diner. If we went into a building where a janitor was mopping the lobby, he would try to walk around the wet area and excuse himself saying something like, “Sorry to step on your floor. You’re doing such a wonderful job there.” He would stop and watch a gardener pruning some hedges, and then tell him, “You’ve done such a great job.” It only took a few seconds, but I imagine those people never forgot what Dad had said to them.
I grew up and followed my father’s example over the years. I have thanked those who do the jobs that many of us would not want to do. I’ve thanked anyone who provides a service for me, and give compliments when I believe they are warranted. I did this with the guy who pumps my gas every day, thanking him for being so quick when I pulled into the station. Guess what? After a time, he started cleaning my windows without my asking him to do it, and he even refused a tip from me (which I would eventually insist that he take). The point is that all work is meaningful to someone, even if it’s not the person doing it.
In Mark 10:42 Jesus said, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” We can remember that as we go about our days. We can, by showing appreciation, let working people know that we see what they’re doing, admire how it is being done, and thank them with a smile or a handshake. It’s the least we can do on Labor Day, and any other day of the year for that matter.