When we say we work hard, where does the "hard" come from?
Work is neither hard nor soft. The mind is hard or soft. For one person, making an apple pie is a grueling exercise in perfectionism. For another, it's a meditation.
As a teenager, I worked all summer on a farm. When storm clouds threatened, we worked 12 hours straight to bring in the hay before it rained. Throwing 75 lb. hay bales into a moving wagon hour after hour is as "hard" as any work you'll find. But we loved it. Our bodies sweated off fat, our muscles were toned, and it was the perfect workout to prepare us for football camp in the fall. Laboring in those rolling fields under the blue sky and mountainous clouds of Pennsylvania summer, we were ecstatic.
My friend Scott Hague is a professional artist. Here's his experience of "work":
"I sit and mix some colored oils together with a hair-tipped stick, then I touch that brush to canvas, leaving a thin film of paint. I guess you could say I work soft. Yet I painted intensely for six hours today. Hard or soft?"When I was a Merchant Marine cadet officer in a summer internship, I got a job on a freighter to West Africa. In Dakar, Senegal, I witnessed racist oppression by white officers. They disdained and verbally abused the African longshoremen. You could cut the atmosphere of imperialism with a knife. Yet these depressed lethargic workers didn't perform much actual work at all, which only invited more disdain from the American officers. The officers gave them no physical abuse. It was all psychological.
When my turn came to supervise, the black crew leader whispered, "Boss man, let us do it the African way!" I didn't know it, but this was against the captain's rules. I said, "Why the hell not? Go ahead. Do it the African way."
Immediately the workers energized, they smiled, they hunkered their shoulders into the weight of a massive crate. Then they began to sing.
Chanting rhythmically, they danced their labor. On every fourth beat they heaved the crate across the deck, until that dance team deftly positioned it under the crane that lowered the crate into the ship's hold. Crate after crate danced across the deck like that. Work became music.
The captain was furious, I didn't know why. But in retrospect, I get it now. For a few hours, I allowed a handful of African workers to dispel the aura of empire.
I observed the same kind of work-song on little ferries in the harbor of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Hawking cold treats of frozen milk and honey, the merchant chanted, the passengers sang a reply: classic call-and-response singing, just like you'd find in an African-American church. What they were singing in their language I didn't know, but I think it was something like this:
"Frozen honey milk, 50 cents!" / "Hey that's too much, too much!"I honestly couldn't tell the difference between work and celebration. But here in America, I've seen people sit at desks all day, doing little or nothing but complain about their work. The problem is not that our work is hard, but that our work is meaningless.
"Frozen honey milk, 45 cents!" / "Hey that's too much, too much!"
"Frozen honey milk, 35 cents!" / "Hey that's too much, too much!"
It won't be economists, but musicologists, who reconnect us to the meaning of work. It won't be politicians, but dancers, who teach our community the mysterious rhythm and melody of labor.