Celebrating labor

Enclosed conveyor belt, Claes working alongside it

Labor Day — a long weekend that traditionally marks the end of summer. From here on, we settle into the regular autumn routines (although this year nothing is regular or routine).

Labor Day is about celebrating workers. Because if nobody worked, we wouldn’t eat, have anywhere to live or have or do much of anything else. In a very real sense, labor makes life possible. (How Labor Day began.)

Unless you’re in some futuristic sci-fi thing where robots do all the work and humans just lounge about all day, every day. But then where’s the purpose of keeping humans around?

We were in a very real sense created to work. To labor. To fashion things that didn’t exist before.

The goal of labor

For some, labor is about putting in time for a paycheck. For others, what they do is a labor of love — a source of accomplishment.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

Steve Jobs

Back when I worked in a harbor, there was a kid, fresh out of high school, on the team. He was the youngest among us. And so often, at quitting time, he’d lean on his shovel and exclaim: “One day closer to retirement.” 

He was lucky to not get thrown in the water.

Because none of the rest of us really wanted to do that particular very manual work every day until the day we retired. (Read more in The old man and the kid.)

Soaring, trying new things

“Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?”

Michelle Obama

That’s easy enough to say and much harder to do. Because a paycheck provides a level of security. It keeps coming, every 2 weeks. Like clockwork. Until of course you get 2 weeks notice. 

After decades of working for others, it was scary to step out on my own and start a business. Because you never really know if it’s going to fly. And in the 13 years since, I’ve had to reinvent myself multiple times.

It doesn’t have to be starting a business. It can be changing from one job to another. There’s risk. And lots of unknown.

But we can’t possibly soar if we never leave the nest.

The dignity of work

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we didn’t know how important work, even so called ‘menial work’, was, the pandemic surely has made it clear. Because while I’m able to work from anywhere, so many people have to physically show up.

Garbage collectors, grocery store clerks, bank tellers, cleaning persons, police officers, firefighters and of course doctors and nurses. 

They’re the ones who keep on doing their job, even when conditions get tough. So the rest of us can benefit. Because without them going to their workplaces, I couldn’t work from anywhere.

“If you pursue good with labor, the labor passes away but the good remains; if you pursue evil with pleasure, the pleasure passes away and the evil remains.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

One of my biggest fears would be to work very hard at something all my life, only to get to the end and find out that none of it really mattered at all. Fortunately, my work has been about making life better for people. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes a bit bigger.

Somewhere in Louisville, Kentucky, there are people who I’ve never met, and will likely never meet, but who were the ones who assembled the car I drive. I am thankful to you all.

An honest day’s pay

“But every acquisition that is disproportionate to the labor spent on it is dishonest.”

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Teslas may be cool cars and it took some groundbreaking innovation to make them happen, but seriously, is Elon Musk worth 40,668 times what the median Tesla worker makes?

Even an average chief executive of an S&P 500 company earned 287 times more than his or her median employee in 2018. 

That’s a pretty ridiculous pay gap if you ask me.

When work happens

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Stephen King

That’s right. Being a professional means pushing forward and getting the job done on time. I’m certainly thankful that the people I depend on to do their jobs showed up.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)

At the end of the day, there is more to life than labor. We were not made to work 24/7/365. We all need rest. Jesus came to draw us, whole, weary or broken, to him and give us hope and comfort. For this life and for eternity.

Labor can be a lot of things. And it’s certainly right that we take a day out of the year to celebrate the importance of Labor (and those who do the laboring).

I consider it a blessing to have worked in many kinds of labor in my life. Physical labor with my hands, getting dirty. In offices. In higher education. And in those oddly strange creative settings I hang out in now. Great experiences that shaped my life and that I wouldn’t want to be without.