September 1, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Work—You’d think we invented it

It’s no wonder we celebrate a holiday dedicated to labor in this country.

Somewhere, I read statistics claiming that Americans routinely work 10 to 20 or more hours per week than Europeans. Not that they are more productive, mind you, just that they work more hours.

Not only that, but Americans don’t take much time for vacations either. Europeans take several weeks off during the hottest part of summer, not to mention holidays and other times of the year. I’ve always found it fascinating that, in determinedly secular Germany, Pentecost is a national holiday. Pentecost!

In reading history, we learn that work used to be done just to keep oneself, one’s family and possibly one’s tribe, alive.

Working life was based in agrarian communities and nature’s rhythms. This was true until recent times, when the Industrial Revolution more or less created industriousness.

The idea of work for its own sake soon got tangled up in religion, as in the Puritan idea that hard work was necessary to gain God’s favor. Even better, it gained the favor of all the other judgmental Puritans in the New World. So, the work ethic seems to be mainly an American phenomenon.

Work takes on a moral dimension in other ways as well. We believe that one should make his or her best effort in the job at hand, no matter what it is. The diligent garbage collector is as worthy of respect as is Bill Gates, founder and president of Microsoft, and both receive personal and professional satisfaction from doing a good job.

This leads to the moral aspects of payment for services. When the robber barons of the early 20th century became greedy and indifferent to their workers, they created the need for labor unions. And, despite whatever mistakes the unions may have made, they were and are necessary to keep a just balance in the rewards for work. Personally, I think Ben and Jerry’s executives were correct when they made their salaries only a reasonable amount higher than those of their least skilled employees.

We choose the work we do for various reasons, not all of them worthy.

I once met a man who told me he was a podiatrist because that profession required less learning time in college, demanded no emergency house calls and earned high specialist fees. He said this proudly as if he’d discovered the key to success and should be congratulated for his cleverness.

Unfortunately, this kind of attitude sometimes affects young people today. They want to follow the easiest course of study, gain quick financial success and live, now and forever, in the style to which they’ve become accustomed at home. Making a big splash, however crassly or carelessly done, has eclipsed respect for a gold watch at the end of many productive years.

It seems to me the ideal preparation for work is to find something we love, educate ourselves to do it well and persevere through the years until we truly deserve respect for it. Nothing is sweeter than to realize one day that you are the person to whom others look for advice and support because you have mastered your craft.

God has given us the tools to do good work, and we must use them. That’s what we really honor on Labor Day.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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