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On the beauty of work
even without the promise of more
Hard work has always offered me a sense of comfort. Or maybe it was the necessity of hard work that invited me to embrace it. Either way, I was never one to coast. In part because I never felt particularly gifted or talented.
There’s nothing to acquire, nothing to abandon,
nothing to assert, nothing to deny.
What are marks of high rank?
Even the hills and mountains crumble to dust.
I use my mysterious spiritual powers
to carry water and haul firewood.
—Layman Pang (translation by Sam van Schaik)
My sister, on the other hand, was good at everything—writing, art, coordination (“Jen’s getting stitches again?”).
I didn’t mind working a little harder to get where I needed to go. Work ameliorated anxiety and gave me purpose. While working, there’s predictability and structure. There is a clear goal and challenge associated with any job or gig.
And the role itself—be it mind-numbing, values-aligned or not, provocative, political, helpful, soul-nourishing, or simply passable—carried with it the promise of being some use to something or someone. Work can offer meaning or, at its worst, make us feel as though we will live with meaning once it’s complete. (Either way, work helps us find meaning.)
I got my first job at fourteen as a bagger at a grocery store called Big Bear. I worked in factories, gas stations, clubs, megastores, clothing boutiques, banks, and restaurants (from fast food to steakhouses). I worked at a small nonprofit, in academia, and finally, I worked for myself and the community.
The earlier jobs inspired the manuscript I’m currently writing. And as I write scenes from my life, the connective tissue of the work is clear. It’s a book about day jobs (well, a few were third-shift). But as I write, I’m revisiting this idea that work promises meaning . . .
I’ve been told more than once that I have a Protestant work ethic. Except that my parents weren’t Protestant, nor was I. In fact, at age eight (or so), after BEGGING my father to take me to church one time, I listened to a sermon and decided (politely) not to pursue eternal salvation.
I decided was of the world, and being of the world I was in, I figured I’d do what felt comfortable. I’d explore said world through work.
Working meant money, too, which helped me to fix my teeth and eventually (slowly) attend college. It became all-consuming at times. Other times it drained me.
I have an incredible work ethic to this day. Even the pandemic couldn’t shake it (boy, did it try). But I also get bored easily, and I wonder if this is the plight of the writer. Just curious (see above survey).
The writer can continue to “work” at her craft and never get bored because the moment she’s bored, she can research something new. The writer can take a journey, navel-gaze, turn the same subject every which way, or turn herself inside out just to construct a few beautiful sentences that will cut through time and space and be received by a willing reader. If she’s lucky.
AI is promising to ease our loads as workers. Rather, the AI itself and its evangelists are promising such things. It could even help me write this blog, and I could use the help because I’m busy and often confused.
Meanwhile, it is the confusion of this topic, the messiness of writing, and the challenge of plain old work that offers me a way to truly focus my mind. Work can be meditative. Work can be immersive. It can be boring, sure, and even toxic, but we can leverage our ability to work in a way that will allow us to grow.
When I am being lazy about anything, from flossing to chores to writing, I feel guilty. Not because I am risking eternal salvation but because I am disappointing myself. I want to impress myself. Because who else will I impress if I can’t do that?
When I packed groceries methodically, I felt good. When I threw a bag of frozen peas atop a loaf of bread to move a little faster, not so much. When I caught myself cutting corners, I knew it was time to go. Perhaps that’s why I had so many jobs. I’m not sure. I suppose this is what my essay collection is aiming to figure out.
To praise the value of work as though it were the deepest meditation wasn’t my original intention when I sat down to write this. Nonetheless, the “work” reveals what it does.
And here we are.