What is Work?

July 25, 2013 § 27 Comments

The boys loaded bales whilst I slept off my morning drunk in the shade

The boys loaded bales whilst I slept off my morning drunk in the shade

I’m reading a book called the Continuum Concept. It was first published in ’86, way back when I spent most of my time smoking weed and trying to play Eddie Van Halen riffs on my guitar (for the record, I no longer do at least one of these things), so it’s possible some of you have heard of it or even read it.

Anyway. The book chronicles the author’s experiences living with indigenous cultures in the jungles of South America, and how these experiences transformed her perceptions of what constitutes a meaningful life and how we should relate to one another and our children. At least, that’s what I’m getting out of it so far: I’m only on about page 40.

Still, already I’m struck by her observations regarding tribal attitudes toward tasks Westerners would likely consider onerous, inconvenient, or downright miserable. She talks about participating in some of these tasks – hauling water, or sugarcane, or portaging boats – and how when faced with these tasks, her mood invariably became bleak and complaining. These jobs were hard. The rocks hurt her feet. The water was heavy. The path was narrow and steep. And so on. Yet, when she looked around her, all she saw were smiles. All she heard was laughter and joking. There was no sense of urgency, no tension in body, face, and action. It was if the hard work was not actually hard work, at all. It was as if it was just life. It was if her experience of these tasks being unpleasant resulted not from the tangible particulars of the job at hand, but from her socialized expectations relating to labor. They were of her mind, not her body.

Every so often someone says to me “I can’t imagine how hard you must work to do what you do.” I never really know how to respond. I mean, yeah, I guess we do work hard (though I’m keen to point out, not nearly as hard as the good people I wrote about yesterday). Over just the past few days, I think of haying: 95 degrees and humid as a submarine with an open sunroof. Late first cut, which might just be the itchiest, scratchiest substance known to humankind. You want to get a secret outta someone? Forget tickling: Rub the poor bastard down with late first cut. He’ll be singing like a rooster at the break o’ day.

Or splitting wood. We split by hand, a half-dozen or so cords each year, literally thousands of swings with the maul, literally thousands of wedges of firewood to be hauled and stacked. How many tons of wood moved per year? How many splinters?

Or killing pigs. Or even just this morning, in the field by 5:15 while my family dozes, setting up fence and hauling feed to the meat birds, the sun not even yet threatening full daylight.

Do we whistle and sing and laugh through every one of these tasks? Of course not. Just the other evening, I lay under the tractor, cursing and wallowing in self pity as I methodically removed the skin from my knuckles trying to fit a wrench to the bolts that hold the front axle assemble to the motor. They had somehow come alarmingly loose, creating the discomfiting sensation that the beast was about to collapse in on itself. Which, in fact, it was. But the truth is, I rarely think of our homestead tasks as being anything but pleasurable, anything but one of the greatest privileges of my life.

What is work? Our culture seems to equate work with labor, and likewise seems to revere labor avoidance technologies and conveniences. It’s not that we don’t embrace some of these technologies on our small holding: The very fact that we own a tractor is evidence of that. But reading the Continuum Concept reminds me that our perceptions of work – and in particular, labor – are just that: Perceptions. In other words, how we think of the these tasks, whether we consider them bothersome or whether we view them merely as something that needs to be done, and furthermore, that we are blessed to have the opportunity to do, informs the attitude and spirit with which we approach them.

The underlying question that begs asking is how have we come to have such an unfavorable view of labor? And how we might shift that view? 

I’ve got some ideas, but they’ll have to wait for another day. Because, you know, I’ve got work to do.

§ 27 Responses to What is Work?

  • Michelle says:

    Wow Ben, this is so timely for me. I have just the person to share it with.

  • Maribeth says:

    Great post. I’m wondering why you don’t use a wood splitter? Growing up, my family heated only with wood, so we needed a lot. But, we used a chain saw and a wood splitter. I can still hear the rhythm of the splitting as I write this. I also remember being roused from bed by the whine of the chain saw on weekend mornings! It was a lot of work even with the wood splitter – lifting, carrying, stacking, etc. Also, families shared the wood splitters.

  • Kath says:

    Great thoughts. I think in a different way they relate to stay-at-home mothers, too. Is it work? Should it be respected like other forms of labor/non-labor work? I think about these questions a lot, in particular since what I do at home (chicken keeping, gardening) is borderline hobby, borderline family sustenance…. and yeah, I get the ‘I don’t know how you do it all’ a lot. Never know what to say either.

  • Jess V says:

    I’m not at all certain how it became this way, but the concept of “shit work” (work that we’ve been socialized to believe that we are above participating in) is fascinating to me. We’ve been warned from family, friends, etc. that raising animals and some of our own food is crazy. In fact, it seems to downright offend some that we would even consider it.

    • jsiegel115 says:

      I have also come across these attitudes. I think it’s interesting how “worked up” some people can get about this choice. It’s like we’re challenging their life views. I’m not quite sure what it means, but I know the boat you’re in.

      • Wendy says:

        I’ve become more interested (and have been questioning myself also) in why our society places more value on one type of work over another and how/when did we evolve to believe that? How is it that so many think nothing of paying sports figures, famous actors, CEOs, etc. insane salaries – yet police, firepersons, nurses, restaurant workers, etc. receive wages far removed from their worth for the jobs done? Why should a (non-famous) musician or artist struggle when an engineer or IT person often gets paid high 5 or 6 figures? Why is one skill/talent more valued than another? How do we, as a society, shift our thinking and actions so as to place the same value on ALL skills, talents, and gifts – regardless of what they are – so that we might be able to create valuable long-lasting change and have a more cooperative, happy, and holistic society? I feel that until we do, we will continue to be faced with all the relevant biases that it brings with it, be it gender, race, class, or preferred career choice (like farming).

  • vpfarming says:

    Can’t wait for your thoughts on shifting the perception of labor.

    We’ve been working on many of the same projects: haying, splitting and stacking wood (much with maul, but most with hydraulic power – cheating I know), tuning hay equipment, keeping animals, etc.

    At my office job everyone marvels how we have energy for it. I try to explain that the work actually energizes us (certainly moreso than desk work). But by the look on their faces I may as well be speaking Greek.

  • Tonya says:

    I think that being a mom (especially of lots of children) the daily work is endless – handwashing dishes, sweeping, dishes, sweeping, laundry, hanging laundry, folding, putting laundry away, wiping down the toilet, preparing food from scratch, cooking, cutting, etc…Then there are the homestead daily chores (cleaning the barn and coop, weeding, harvesting, digging, etc….) I work constantly at practicing gratitude while doing this work – reminding myself how thankful I am to be able to be home, to have children, to have food, to have running water, to have a healthy body to be able to do the work in the first place, etc… I also sing or hum or create conversation while doing these things because I don’t want my children to grow up thinking of these things as drudgery. It is true that most people don’t value this kind of work and our society is constantly looking for quicker solutions and ways to avoid most kinds of physical labor. Not sure though what they want to do with this “extra” time – driving to the gym I guess for some or sitting and watching the television for others.

    We also hand split all of our firewood – just a little everyday – great exercise for teenage boys, especially!

  • A very good topic. I am sharing this. People often say when I tell them I am a farmer, “But it is such hard work!” I agree, but over the course of four years, I’ve learned how to work like I’ve never worked in my life. I’ve lost 30 lbs. since leaving the corporate world and am the most fit I’ve ever been. At first, I could barley move my body, oh the aches and pains and exhaustion…But now, I have the stamina to get through the hottest day and the most strenuous activity and still have the energy to do something in the evening. Hard work? Or a good life…

  • Rachel T says:

    “for the record, I no longer do at least one of these things.”

  • Elizabeth L. says:

    This is a great perspective on how we view the daily work that make up our lives. I find that not only is perception key to who we are and what we bring to and each experience but also the self-satisfaction we feel and thus positive self-esteem as a result of hard work. I remember Joel Salatin writing in his book You Can Farm about the gigantic smiles on the faces of young adults after they viewed the land they cleared and timber cut. I find that a healthy dose of hard work leads to a healthy dose of self-confidence, which in turn encourages you to work harder.

  • Matt S. says:

    Nice post. It reminds me of this book by poet Donald Hall, http://www.amazon.com/Life-Work-Donald-Hall/dp/0807071331

  • Kent says:

    Another great post Ben . . thanks. And heating with wood apparently is the most efficient of all fuels: it heats you when you split it . . it heats you when you stack it . . and yes, it heats you when you burn it!

  • Sam says:

    When new parents ask me about parenting books that is the one I always suggest, though it is most definitely a life book.

  • Dawn says:

    I have similar thoughts to those Tonya describes on a daily basis. As the mother of two little boys 9 months apart in age and a farmer, I get the “how do you do it?” questions all the time, too. I usually say one of two things – I know how easily I could have none of the things which are most important to me (my family, my farm) so it is my privilege to do what I do and/or I have been tired and sore for a lot less important reasons in my life so I am happy to work this hard. People usually seem to appreciate my perspective then but I don’t think I convince many people to “convert” to a similar lifestyle.
    Most of us live in a society which has come to view challenging physical work as something to aspire away from. If you’ve made it, you shouldn’t have to work so hard. If you’re successful, your time is more valuable and you can pay someone else (whose time is not as valuable, I guess) to grow your food, etc. Farming by choice is somewhat counter-culture but I notice (in the media, anyway) more people being drawn to trying it at least on a hobby basis to give their life more meaning than they find in the office or cubicle. I think VP of Farming (who I found through the comments in this blog) has some very interesting things to say on this topic.

  • jsiegel115 says:

    I agree with so much said here. Americans, by and large, are the laziest people on the planet. Any time I meet a European customer (most people who’ve come here to our homestead to visit are Europeans settling in America), they tell me they can’t believe A) How this country treats it’s natural resources so wastefully and B) How we don’t do anything that’s like work. Understand that “we” is a general term, not specific in this case.

    We have all these “shortcuts” so we have more free time. We “employ” (meant in the loosest sense on the word) immigrants and illegal aliens to do the crap work for us. Work that we deem beneath us. We don’t get our hands dirty, and we do it to have more free time. How do we spend it? For the most part, on our asses in front of the TV, or stuck to some computer on Facebook.

    Not for me. I love the work. It can be hard on a body, but I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been-even moreso than my husband who goes to the gym 5 days a week. All from lifting, pulling, hauling, etc. I find the work energizing, not dragging, and if I’m not busy, I feel like I should be–there’s always something to do. I can see I’m in good company here. Thanks all of you for writing. It’s comforting to see that there are still some of us who value the work that we do.

  • Wendy says:

    There is something grand about the sense of accomplishment that comes only from physical work that most people I know in Corporate America seem to have lost. Maybe why there’s another ‘back to the land’ movement afoot?

  • Curt says:

    Physical work, done patiently, little by little, but done consistently each day, establishes a very satisfying rhythm, and can be quite enjoyable and healthy. Do as much as you want to, until you go on to something else. When work becomes tiresome or unpleasant, leave it for later, it will always be there when you feel up to it.

  • Cari says:

    To Wendy-
    I would say that one reason some skills are more “valuable” than others is that some skills “cost” more or are harder to acquire.

  • Deb says:

    I think our attitude to work underwent at least a couple of shifts ..firstly with the coming of agriculture, where the passing of time started to matter (limited seasonal time to do whats needed) and later with the industrial revolution where we moved into factories and lost control of most of our time. I reckon we learned to resist work as a way of redressing the power imbalance the bosses had (and have) over us. It explains why the labour laws are stricter in Europe…we have plenty of reminders of those days in our lives. (I’m British).
    Having said that, many of us, including your commenters have discovered that its quite a different thing to work hard for yourself on own terms, kind of bringing human labour back to what it was before the industrial revolution. Liedloff may even be talking about a pre agrarian society. Interesting!

  • Aaron says:

    Matthew Crawford’s book “Shop class as Soulcraft” is a fantastic study of this subject. I highly recommend it. I’ve read it a dozen times and I find something new each time.

  • Joy Fisher says:

    I could probably leave this question in a better place, but I’m curious what you teach your boys “officially” about money. You’ve definitely got views about money and as you’ve mention they have a lot less unnecessary, extravagant things that are just “givens” to other kids – candy, video games, iphones, ipads,etc. So, clearly they are learning that much of what you can spend your money on you really don’t need to spend it on. But, do they understand that their dad makes money from writing primarily? Do they get it (or care) about that yet? If they aren’t reading until 9, I’m guessing maybe also the writing is coming later. If so, in that regard, do they get that you make money through writing and why that would be so? And then that you and Penny save for very specific larger goals. Do they understand the things you and Penny choose to give up in order to save that, etc? Or are those topics you feel will come down the line a ways? Also, in terms of finance, time value of money and all that, have you/will you discuss that with them in terms of a structured learning “assignment” or find ways to bring it into a “real life” lesson? There is a little children’s picture book “One Hen: How One Small Loan Made A Big Difference” by Katie Smith Milway about a little boy from Ghana named Kojo. He saves his money for a loan to buy a hen, then he sells the hen’s eggs at market, pays back the loan, makes a little money, buys more hens, etc. I imagine that your children have likely already had an experience like this first hand or have watched you do it. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts about your children, specifically, and how/what you are teaching them about money.

  • Joy Fisher says:

    I just want to clarify in my above comment that I am in no way judging how you are educating your children. I understand that parents that homeschool are often judged and just want to make sure it didn’t come across as though my questions stem from that. I have two daughters 7 and 3 that are part of the public school system currently. We can’t afford private school and I’m fine with that right now, but I am absolutely open to the idea that just because they are part of the public school system currently, we may not keep them there if it becomes clear that it is a system that is failing them. That’s the reason I’m asking about your thinking in regards to teaching children about money. Food for thought for myself and want to keep an open mind about their education in this world. Thanks.

  • JRossJohnson says:

    I, too, prefer splitting by hand. There’s a deep therapeutic value there I suppose. And if I could ever develop the skill of sharpening a crosscut I would likely saw by hand too…

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