Were any glasses raised on Labor Day to toast workers or work? It seems to me that the holiday is about work in name only and mostly about the end of summer.
Robert Frost wrote a poem about two different sorts of labor: labor to make money vs. labor of love. It depicts the poet out 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.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right—agreed.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
“Only where love and need are one,” he goes on, is work what it ought to be.
Labor Day was founded 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 that fate with little pushback.
One of the worst things about our immersion in the capitalist economic system is the idea that seems essential to it that profit and creativity are inextricably related.
In a “My View” piece of a couple of months back the writer advocates the Medicare model for catastrophic needs . But he argues that most medical needs should be left to the private sector “to maintain competition and encourage innovation. ” As if there is no other motive for innovating than economic competition.
George Will makes the same point in a late June 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 coming up with solutions to felt problems—making the world better for ourselves and others—is an intrinsically rewarding human activity. Another term for it is creativity.
I believe we all know from our lifetimes of unpaid work within the family, with friends, in our communities–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 (fill in the blank)– that the limited, capitalist view of work and creativity is wrong.
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. 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.