Thinking about the Virtues of Work This Labor Day

August 31, 2014

Hands in the garden

Hands in the garden

Hand quilting

Hand quilting

“If there is any one thing that’s unhealthy in America, it’s that it is a whole civilization trying to get out of work — the young, especially, get caught in that.  There is triple alienation when you try to avoid work:  first, you’re trying to get outside energy sources/resources to do it for you; second, you no longer know what your own body can do, where your food or water comes from; third, you lose the capacity to discover the unity of mind and body via your work.”
—  Gary Snyder, from The Gary Snyder Reader:  Prose, Poetry and Translations

I am of two minds about people (affluent people) who hire housecleaners to clean up their messes at home or laborers to mow their lawns and pull weeds.  On one hand, I think people should clean up after themselves.  And I hate the sense of my time being more valuable than yours, so you do the dirty work.  On the other hand, if you can afford it, why not hire people so that your time is freed up to focus on the things that are most important to you.  And hiring people creates jobs and extra income for entrepreneurs.

What do you think?

3 Responses to “Thinking about the Virtues of Work This Labor Day”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Gosh. You’ve got a lot of assumptions here that are worth some thought.

    For example: by any definition, the people whose boats I varnish are affluent. Should they do their own boat maintenance? Should they do their own varnish work, or maintain the engines themselves? Should they take time from their own businesses or families to do such manual labor?

    My opinion is — no. For one thing, they need to tend to their businesses, which in turn employ hundreds of people. For another, each boat supports a whole number of folks — not just the varnisher, but the canvas maker, the diesel mechanic, the washers and waxers, the divers who clean the bottom, the housekeeper who does the interior, the santitation worker who pump out the holding tanks, the marina staff who maintain the docks and the various marina services…

    Shall I go on? I could! But you probably take my point. The dynamic is exactly the same whether we’re talking boat maintenance, lawn care, or house cleaning. And even the non-affluent (that would be me!) sometimes hire workers.

    Two examples. When Mom still was with me, I finally gave in and hired a weekly housecleaner for her. Mom couldn’t do it, and I was working full time as well as doing her cooking, driving, etc. etc. It was more important for me to spend an afternoon taking her for a drive than cleaning her house. The woman I hired was a young mother with two children and no husband. She needed the work, and preferred to work rather than go on welfare. The arrangement was good for her, good for me, and good for Mom, who looked forward to the company.

    And I’ll never forget the struggle I went through when I moved to Liberia, and faced the decision: hire a young man as a houseboy, or not. I decided “not.” It was just so colonial, don’t you know? I could do my own work. I didn’t need to get out the pith helmet and play “Bwanette.”

    You should excuse the language, but the **** hit the fan. I was roundly criticized, because working for expats (and upper class Liberians) was the way kids made it through school. I was expected to hire someone, which I did. He was delightful, and worked like a demon possessed. In exchange, I paid his school fees, paid for his uniforms, provided a hundred pound bag of rice to his family each month, and paid him a small amount of cash money at the end of each week for taxi fares. Oh — and he could eat at the house.

    I suppose this all boils down to: an honest day’s work for an honest wage always is good. It provides a service to the person hiring, and satisfaction and dignity to the worker. Besides, as I’ve learned, to my complete astonishment, there are people who LOVE to clean house. I’m not one, so everyone’s happy when I hire it done.

    Of course, most of us understand drudgery. I’ve had some jobs I hated, but I needed the money. So we do what we do. But there’s nothing essentially demeaning about yard work or house cleaning. As a matter of fact, I knew it was time to leave my high status job in the professional world and do something different when I started coming home and scrubbing floors, just so I could see I’d accomplished something.

    (Oh, my goodness. Well, you asked what we thought!)

    • Rosemary Says:

      Thank you for taking so much time and thought with your response. Your experiences in Liberia remind me very much of the dynamic in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. The protagonist, Ma Ramotswe,comes into a small inheritance and she decides to set up a business, a detective agency. She does not have cases enough to turn a profit, and yet she hires a secretary because she understands the boost she is giving to another private household as well as the overall economy of the village. Very much how you injected a source of livelihood into your town in Liberia. Spreading your wealth by creating a job provided a cascading wealth of benefits to many.
      Livelihood is a very good word for this kind of work.

  2. Diana Studer Says:

    I’m torn. I hate the idea of employing someone to clean our house. But, the lady who does for us, is putting her third son thru school. She shares my love of gardening and usually goes home with some cuttings or bulbs. It works for each of us.


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