Thinking about work, creativity and the meaning of life

My sense is that not a lot of deep thinking about labor goes on on Labor Day. Do we even toast labor or laborers with our beers? It functions more as a last gasp of summer.

In a tourist destination it has a somewhat different meaning.

Do Cape Codders still wave goodbye to exiting summer visitors from bridges over Route 6 draped with signs saying: WILL THE LAST ONE OVER THE BRIDGE PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHT? The idea was that we left in the abandoned room of the off-season were happy to be getting our lives back after an overly busy summer. The logic of that tradition probably faded with the advent .of the shoulder season.

It’s p ossible that this Labor Day there will be some pandemic -inspired thoughtfulness about work. We’ve been hearing in recent months about a culture-wide change in attitude about work. There’s a distinct feeling that labor should be valued more. Wages, stagnant for decades, should go up. Workers are suddenly in short supply (don’t ask this English major to explain the economics of that); we see signs in front of busineses advertising their need for help.

But the change in the air isn’t just about money; part of it has to do with work and quality-of-life. The China-inspired Lying Flat movement rejecting ratrace workaday life, has elements of both Melville’s character Bartleby, who simply “prefers not to” do his job and Dylan’s early 1960s declaration that he “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more ” so liberating to young workers back in the day.

Robert Frost wrote a Depression era poem about two different sorts of labor: labor to make money vs. labor of love. It depicts the poet out in his yard splitting wood for the various satisfactions thereof, enjoying giving his muscles a workout, feeling himself outdoors in nature, the sense of a job well done. Along come a couple of out-of-work guys who make him uncomfortable for pursuing this labor of love. The poem implies that he yields to the greater need of the tramps, but concludes that “only where love and need are one,” he goes on, is work what it ought to be.

Labor Day was instituted to honor ourselves for the other kind of work, for faithfully, even heroically, slugging away at something we wouldn’t be doing except for the money. It’s a very limited version of labor.

Work in the broad sense is something we do most of our waking hours. It is arguably the fundamental human activity. We all, I hope, know work in Frost’s sense—that version based on the convergence of love and need. My impression is that too many of us spend too much of our lives doing work of the other kind and ac cept life on Maggie’s Farm with little pushback. [although that may be changing.

An essential feature of the capitalist economic system is the idea that profit and creativity are inextricably related.

An op-ed piece in this paper a while back argued that despite its inefficiency and huge expense, we need to keep private sector healthcare “to maintain competition and encourage innovation. ” As if there is no other motive for innovating than economic competition.

George Will once made the same point in a column:. if you liberals don’t like greed-driven capitalism you “had better be ready to do without creativity.” Not necessity but greed is the mother of invention. (Presumably, under socialism there would be no creativity.)

As if doctors wouldn’t be motivated to heal without monetary incentive, string theorists to string theorize, parents to parent. Without greed fire, penicillin, the auto or airplane or computers would remain uninvented. Frost’s firewood would never get split. If not for being well paid for his syndicated column, Will himself wouldn’t otherwise be interested in disseminating his views.

The other view of labor is that making the world better for ourselves and others —everything from washing the dishes to painting a better painting to comforting a child to improving your golf swing to voting your conviction in town meeting to building a bookshelf to cooking a good meal for loved ones—is an intrinsically rewarding human activity. Another term for it is creativity.

Most of us have to make some money to survive, and the fortunate among us love the work we need to do to make money. Not everyone longs for retirement. But in any case the more of the one and the less of the other you can manage to do (other things being equal), the better your life will be. As a matter of fundamental spiritual training, the distinction between the two sorts of work should be taught from our earliest schooling.


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