On Work and Building Character

It is natural to desire respect. We are social animals; everybody wants to be important. We don’t want to feel like we’re being pushed to the outside of the herd or that the pack doesn’t need us. For healthy people in most circumstances this desire is useful in that it pushes them to become an essential part of the lives of family, friends, neighbors, customers, employers, and coworkers; helping and then becoming needed and appreciated. 

That is all well and good. It’s as healthy as the desire for food and shelter. But all desires can turn to vice if they are not kept in check. Many of our cultural woes stem from a particular corruption of this desire for honor. This vice wears many faces and hides behind many names. But for the purposes of this article we will follow a popular trend and call it “elitism.” It is the inordinate pursuit of unearned influence over many people. 

Recently, a somewhat embarrassing example of this elitism was presented on the pages of American Greatness under the title “How Hard Work Destroys Character.” It’s difficult to say whether the author was tragically underserved by the adults responsible for his upbringing or whether the strawman he erects is simply a literary device. 

Josiah Lippincott assures us early in the article that “Digging ditches won’t automatically make you a good person.” It’s difficult to find many parents, even of the “boomer variety” (his words), who would make that claim. Similarly, one wonders who needs to be convinced that “Man does not exist to labor for the sake of laboring.” If these were truly moral precepts imposed on him in youth then surely pity is the appropriate response. If it weren’t for his multiple assurances  of his intellectual superiority over common men throughout the piece, one might think it possible the author simply misunderstood the guidance from the mentors of his youth. These historical mysteries we must allow to remain hidden. 

Our teacher proceeds to light the way as we delve deeply into the topic of work in scripture. Our strawman comes along for the ride as the teacher tells us that “the Bible itself presents menial work as a curse.”  In fact, the pertinent passage in Genesis (3:17-19) says nothing about menial labor. Lippincott’s reading is sophomoric. The passage is a clear reference back to Genesis 1:28, just a page or two earlier in most Bibles. It is explicitly about work that is not menial at all. It is about the most profound activity of man. 

In Genesis 1:28, God instructs man to “fill the earth and subdue it.” He is telling the creature made in His image to finish the work that he started in the first six days of creation. This is all before the fall. The implication of this verse is that the important work of man must now be done with sweat and toil, pain and suffering. The curse of the fall makes it difficult. It does not make it menial or beneath the dignity of any man. 

From there our teacher takes us on a rollercoaster of autobiographical detail ostensibly to demonstrate his “bootstrap” credentials. In order to spare the reader, we may summarize that he seems to have managed to spend a lot of time working for minimum wage. For someone of his intellectual prowess we may begin to think this was due to his benevolence for lesser men. But that will be cleared up shortly. At the climax we hear the teacher’s lament of the loss of the “flower of my youth mowing lawns and picking up trash for wealthy Boomers.” Let us pause here for a moment of silence for his delicate flower . . .  

He goes on:

Instead of cultivating my mind by focusing on the higher and more critical tasks of war and peace, I spent my days thinking of inanities. How does one patch a broken sprinkler line? What is the easiest way to kill gophers? What is the most efficient way to use a lawn blower to move grass clippings from the sidewalk back onto the yard?

A tragic loss for humanity to be sure. This seems an appropriate place to remember Aristotle’s quote from the Ethics:

Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these.

It’s possible that our teacher might benefit from a little more experience with sprinkler lines and “lawn blowers” before dispensing his wisdom regarding higher things. One can’t help but wonder why someone who requires whole days mentally contending with gophers thinks he ought to focus on the “tasks of war and peace.”

At one point our teacher deigns to entertain a question, “If I am so smart, why didn’t I find better summer employers?” But this is answered by himself clearly, immediately, and forcefully: “I throw the question back in the critic’s face: why didn’t these better employers come looking for me?” He doesn’t just reply. He throws it back. Not just anywhere, either. He throws it back in their face! Take that, critic . . . ! It really is a wonder that employers were not lining up for the chance to beg such a charming and gifted god among men to work alongside them as he contemplated the highest things. 

There is more to say. But the riches of our teacher’s wisdom cannot be exhausted in a single sitting. Given the way that our media, think tanks, and institutions of higher learning work, we are sure to hear more from him in the near future. He is likely to be a highly paid “fellow” of something or other soon enough. Then he can spend his days in the noble pursuit for which he was destined: contemplating how others ought to live and dispensing wisdom from on high.

Charity probably requires a more earnest conclusion. It is a genuine tragedy that this young man came to physical maturity with such a poor formation regarding what constitutes a meaningful life. It is unlikely that our author will welcome advice. But it is offered here anyhow in the hope he may someday have the humility to consider it and for any others who may find themselves with similar inclinations.

All work can be considered drudgery and all work can be considered meaningful. It depends on one’s attitude. The old story about the two peasants hauling large stones through mud in medieval Europe comes to mind. One is scowling and cursing and the other is smiling and singing. When asked what they are doing, the first replies that he is hauling rock. The second replies that he is building a cathedral. One key to a good life is to find a way to make work meaningful. 

The other aspect to the pursuit of a good life is play—meaningful leisure. Our author’s description of his longing for the mountains while he worked is truly regrettable. But his facile dichotomy is telling. He relates the story as if he should have chosen to spend the entire summer in the mountains instead of spending the entire summer working. We can’t know about his particulars, but most people waste much of their time on distraction that is neither meaningful work or meaningful leisure. He probably should have spent days or maybe even weeks sauntering through the woods that summer. But spending three months sauntering might have led to a sadness of a different sort.

It isn’t clear in the article what is defined as menial work. America’s greatest satirist has Tom Sawyer learn a great lesson about work around the age of 12:

He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

If all people shared our author’s view of work, nobody would ever excel at anything. There would be no great composers, sports stars, painters, mathematicians, sculptors, masons, architects, philosophers or poets. All excellence comes from activity that looks laborious—sometimes pointless—to outsiders. 

A little-discussed but related truth is that most high-level professionals spend the majority of their days with their minds occupied by what our author calls “inanities.” This is the very reason that many blue collar workers pursue work in the trades. Many tradesmen learn at Tom Sawyer’s age that by using their bodies for work, their minds can be free while they make their living. 

Hard work builds virtues that are lacking in some quarters of American society today. We should be holding up the value of practical work as a cure for many of our present ills. As for our young author, we suggest that he put down Plato for a few years until he has spent some time studying Mike Rowe.

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About Laborem Exercens

Laborem Exercens is a Millennial former manufacturing executive turned entrepreneur living in central California.

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