A few years before my father died at the age of 78, he called me one evening just to bat the breeze, as he would occasionally do. Although it wasn’t the main point of the conversation, he spoke about how he was enjoying his new job at Wal-Mart where he worked a few nights a week assembling bikes, wagons, garden equipment and whatever else needed constructing before being placed out for sale. He talked about what a good time he and the other older guys he worked with had as they shared wrenches and screwdrivers while at the same time sharing stories about grandchildren, fishing and the deplorable state of politics.
I remember saying how it was good that he had something like this to keep busy, and he responded with, “Well, you know Ed, I have to work.” Now, my father had a good pension as a retired sheet metal worker, and he collected social security of course. His wife also had a good retirement income, so he didn’t “Have to” work to make ends meet. He had to work because he believed in work.
I believe in work too.
Both of my grandfathers, one a carpenter, the other a steamfitter, died relatively young considering today’s male life expectancy figures. While some in our family attributed their “earlier than they should have been” departures to lifetimes of hard backbreaking work, no one on either side of the family ever disputed the value, virtue and necessity of a rock-solid work ethic.
It hasn’t been so long ago, certainly within the memory of aging baby-boomers like me, that people, particularly men, were identified by the work they did. “This is Charlie, the carpenter. Do you know my neighbor Roger? He’s a painter at the Rambler plant. Which Gillespies do you mean? The farmers or the ones who work at The Brass?” High school transcripts, as recently as a generation ago listed the father’s occupation next to home address and above graduation date.
Work defined us as much as neighborhood, church affiliation and family status did.
Somewhere that changed. I don’t know exactly when and I suppose there are a hundred reasons why, but there has been a definite shift from a prevailing “Midwestern work ethic” of putting forth your best effort as a standard to one that looks at work as a necessary evil and doing just enough to get by as a reasonable accomplishment.
I believe in work. Social scientists tell us that a sure way to break a culture is to take meaningful work away from men. Have we somehow, in devaluing work broken something important in and to our culture?
I believe in work, and I believe in work with a purpose, no matter what the occupation. In an era where “me-time” as the highest personal priority is considered appropriate and reasonable, there are still many who believe, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, that our real and potential labors belong to the good of the community and that no matter what the work is we are about, it is a privilege to do it because it will make our community and the lives of our neighbors better than they might otherwise be.
Isn’t that why you go to your school or your office every day?
Do you work to live or do you live to work? Does it make any difference? I believe it does. It makes all the difference in how you approach the task, the job, the profession…. the vocation.
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