Normally we equate the word work with the word job; however, there are many people who like to work but hate the job they are currently in. Much can be said for enjoying the work we engage in to make a living. Driving to work, knowing that your main goal is merely to endure the day, can make for a miserable life.
Besides providing for food and shelter, work supplies us with purpose. An idle mind really is the Devil’s workshop, but the Devil doesn’t have much room to work if our minds are focused on gainful labor.
Work itself has an interesting history. For many centuries in almost all civilizations, work was viewed as a curse, a sign of bondage, or a necessary evil. It still is in many non-Western nations.
Interestingly enough, in the West, particularly in America, work became a bit joyful, mainly because free enterprise allowed so many to work for themselves, instead of working as servants or low-paid field hands. All that I have ever read about the history of work sets the late 15th century as the time when attitudes toward work began to move from contempt to a measure of reverence and pride.
And what happened in the late 15th century, say 1492? Christopher Columbus discovered America. Dreamers of all stripes followed Columbus to the New World — merchants, evangelizers, lovers of adventure, lovers of freedom — and all of them had to cut down trees and grow food just to subsist.
Hence Americans, a frontier people, were birthed in hard work into a struggle against the elements. Slaves brought from Africa bore no less a strengthening burden.
The 15th century could be a rather late assignation for the change in attitude toward work. In the 1st century, the Apostle Paul wrote, “He who does not work shall not eat.” And in the 6th century, monasteries across Europe began requiring manual labor of monks, not only to identify with their parishioners, but also to acknowledge the Biblical teaching that work is honorable.
Even though attitudes toward work did experience a gigantic, positive shift, some areas of the world missed out on it. For instance, during the 300 consecutive years that the Romanov family ruled Russia (1617-1917), 93 percent of the Russian people were peasants. One can readily see how peasants would view work differently from a family that proudly runs its own small, but thriving business.
The history of work and of everything else has never been a straight line, but a loopy one. It continues a while, only to loop back, sometimes creating a cul-de-sac from which it continues on or in which it stalls. Recessions come and go; the job market ebbs and flows.
America is at a point now where some rumination is in order. Why? Because economically, culturally and politically we are circling a cul-de-sac instead of proceeding out of it as we normally have.
From day one, America has been a nation on the move. In recent times, however, we have lapsed into a stagnation of spirit and action. America was built by work, manufacturing and spirit. Today we manufacture less and our attitudes toward work are scary. I don’t doubt one bit the statistic that says 53 percent feed the 47 percent.
But neither can I join those who say that our present angst means we are finished.
Attitude and spirit always trickle down from leaders. Compare Jimmy Carter’s woe-is-us to Ronald Reagan’s chipper optimism. In economics, as in all of life, “a merry heart does good like a medicine.”
Our spirit and our mental state will change when we set the right leaders before us.
In his hardly noticed but dynamic little book, “The Ordeal of Change,” the blind longshoreman Eric Hoffer wrote, “The working masses did not make Britain, Germany, Russia, China, or Japan, but the masses made America.” Consider the implication of Hoffer’s claim. America is the only civilization shaped by the values of working commoners rather than by the dictates of monarchs, nobles or other elites.
Hoffer goes on to say, “No elite of whatever nature can feel at home in America, whether an intellectual, a military leader, a business tycoon, or even a labor leader. America is the home of workers.”
What will reinvigorate our nation is what erected it in the first place: good leaders, good values and good workers. Happy Labor Day!
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.