“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
~ Mark Twain
What does work bring us? As adults, we need the money. We need the companionship of our tribe, our colleagues. We need the satisfaction of creating meaning in our lives. You know you’re an adult when you are introduced as, “This is David Stanley. He’s a writer who used to teach high school science.” Some years ago, I would have been, “Dave Stanley—dude once camped out for 36 hours for Springsteen tickets.”
Whether it is mentally and spiritually healthy or not, we are defined by our work.
If you read my first two installments, you know that my twenty year old son Aaron came home from college with no job, in a slight state of shock from his expulsion from the college tennis team, and just a wee bit of anger and confusion over the whole state of affairs. He completed 36 separate job applications; both online and in person. All were unsuccessful in gaining him employment. My wife and I put him to work as our yard person. We paid him just above minimum wage.
In retrospect, I should also have had him plant a vegetable garden. I love to cook for my family. It’s a way to show our love and care and respect. In having Aaron plant and tend vegetables, I could have given him the same opportunity to see a difficult and often frustrating task through to the end. There is dignity and honor and peace in the growing of food for family and friends.
But, Aaron found a job. Aaron is now an employee of Bed, Bath and Beyond. He has been there for nearly a month. He has new tasks to master and clear-cut outcomes for which to strive. He has met new people with good attitudes.
A remarkable transformation has occurred. He is energized.
Aaron’s new outlook was on full display last week. We pulled into our driveway. Several of the shrubs which he had been shaping and nursing into near-Edward Scissorhandsian topiaries were looking a bit shaggy. He got out of the car and stood there a moment. He stroked his stubbly chin.
“Hmmm. I gotta find some time to get after those. I cannot believe how quick those things grow.”
What does a young man get from work, anyway?
A young man learns to work with a team. He learns to tolerate others’ mistakes. He learns to be tolerated for his mistakes. He learns to ask for help, because he will make mistakes. He learns that inaction by paralysis is bad because Yoda was correct; “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
A young man learns to work alone. In following a superior’s instructions, he learns the value of properly finishing a task according to someone else’s needs. He learns how satisfying it is to look back at the end of a day with a tangible, quality result to one’s efforts.
Work teaches a young man to apologize for things that are not entirely his fault. He also learns to sincerely apologize when he has well and truly screwed up. And that, to a customer or client, there is not much difference.
A young man learns from work that he can meet reasonable expectations. He learns that there is joy, not fear, in standing on one’s own two feet. He learns that he can solve problems outside of the library, dormitory, laboratory and Xbox.
A young man learns that the truism, “You just can’t make some people happy” is absolutely correct. He learns that he doesn’t want to be one of those people. He learns that compassion for a terminally unhappy person can be hard to find. He learns that when people take out their frustrations on you, you don’t have to accept them.
A young man learns compassion. When faced with a customer who cannot read, yet needs assistance, he learns that all humans have the right to basic dignity. When faced with a customer who cannot hear and speak, a young man learns to problem solve with them with shared humor and common sense and empathy. When faced with a customer who has been beaten down by life, he learns to value the human spirit.
A young man learns there is value, real and honest basic human value, in all work that is properly completed with grace and dignity. Assisting a customer, completing a transaction, stocking shelves, clearing carts from the parking lot, cleaning a bathroom—done with discipline and dedication, all work has value and worth. He learns that worth is what you bring to the job, not what some outside agency has assigned to the job.
In short—through work, we learn what it means to be a good man; a good human.
Aaron has learned that one doesn’t need to roll one’s eyes before emptying the dishwasher. He has learned that trash simply needs to go into the garage when the waste bin is full. He has learned that seven minutes of vacuuming do not require seventeen minutes of complaining beforehand.
Aaron is not “done.” He still harbors some rage within. He can still be tense and terse and impatient. He can tease and tweak and condescend.
Just like the rest of us. Those moments of which we are less than proud are basic to being human. But as Aaron, my adult teenager, becomes more successful at work, we spend far more time interacting as adults, and far less time as parent and teen, than we ever have.
Work, good work; it calms and grows the soul.
Photo: Sean MacEntee/Flickr