"Laborer's Hands," Library of Congress, Warren and Margot Coville collection
Manual labor takes mental discipline
I spent a good chunk of the holidays catching up on some home renovation and maintenance that had fallen two or three decades behind schedule.
Manual labor is a good thing. I do some of my best thinking when I’m working with my hands. A shop project tempts you to take short cuts which always turn out to be long cuts. Saving time almost always wastes time. There is no substitute for patient attention to detail, one step at a time, do it right or do it over.
Manual labor presents us with problems that won’t solve themselves. They won’t go away until they are actually solved. There is a transparent honesty to manual labor that is good for the soul.
We must acknowledge that a hard day’s work deserves a just wage, but somewhere along the way we forgot that hard work has value all its own.
It’s not just about the money. Hard work, especially when that work makes us sweat in a good way, is good for us.
Work that requires us to solve problems is good for us. Work that requires us to be patient and attentive to detail is good for us. Work that forces us to admit our mistakes and fix them is really, really good for us. The satisfaction that follows that kind of work brightens the soul.
My wife makes fun of me. When I finish a job (which doesn’t happen all that often), I will pour a glass of wine, pull up a chair, and happily stare at it for a long time with a glow of satisfaction.
I was speaking one day to a farmer who hires legal immigrants from Mexico to work on his farm. I asked him if he hired them because they work for smaller wages. “No,” he said, “I hire them because they know how to work with their hands. I can’t find that skill among the locals anymore.”
Note well the point that he made. It is not only that they are willing to work with their hands, but rather, they know how to work with their hands. Manual labor takes knowledge.
A false stereotype assumes that manual laborers are condemned to that kind of work because they are too ignorant to get a desk job.
Do we reject manual labor because we feel it is beneath us, or maybe we just don’t know how?
I graduated from York Central School with a double major in Latin and Shop. Latin came more easily to me than shop. Fortunately, I had one of the great shop teachers of all time, the legendary Wes Hammond, or as we called him, “The Old Man.”
He showed no mercy for lazy work and shoddy craftsmanship. In the height of our frustration he made us settle down, think it through, and do it right.
The Old Man died many years ago, but I still talk to him. I talk to him frequently as my home improvement projects spin out of control and fall apart. His voice returns from the grave to make me settle down, think it through, and do it right.
The Old Man used to take us backpacking in the Adirondacks. He taught us how to plan and pack for a long weekend trek into the wilderness.
I remember being 14 years of age and being told it was my responsibility to plan everything I would eat for the next three days.
On the first trip, I was afraid to pack too much and I never got that “really full feeling” after a meal. On the second trip, I brought too much.
As soon as we got back to the truck, the Old Man made us take our leftover food out of the pack and put it on scale.
He said to me, “Next time why don’t you just pack a brick.” It takes knowledge and skill to be a good pack mule.
As I write this column, I am sitting in JFK airport waiting for a flight to Haiti. This will be my third trip there. Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere.
People there work very, very hard for what little they can earn to survive. Yet, each time I return from that wonderful place, I envy their knowledge and skill.
Earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics and horrible politics make every day life a brutal challenge. As one elderly Haitian once said to me with a big grin, “When you do not have money, you must have strategy.”
Can you make a spear gun out of garbage? A Haitian fisherman can.
My point is that it’s a new year. We lament a bad economy, bad weather, and bad politics. Like good white collar workers we pound our fist on the table and demand to know whose responsibility it is to solve our problems and bring us happiness.
My New Year’s resolution is this: More manual labor. More self-reliance. More joy in stepping up and taking responsibility for my own survival