The Dignity of Labor
I love artists, because I’m a wordsmith and they say things I can never say. Here are two of my favorite paintings about work, both by Caillebotte:
My mother was full of aphorisms. I grew up with “All work has dignity,” and “It doesn’t matter what you do. If you’re a [floor scraper], be the best one you can be.”
Coming from an intellectual family, I was always fascinated to see people work with their hands. It took such patience. They did the same thing over and over. I wondered what held their interest.
When I watched, I often saw and felt love. I watched the carpenter pause for a moment, stroking the wood as if it were a living thing. Turning it over in his hands, caressing it.
I heard the repairman coaxing the plumbing — “Come on baby, come on baby,” he would say to the corroded screw, with pliers in his hands.
I never heard my father, a corporate attorney, talking to his brief that way, or the father of my children, a pathologist, begging the pap smear to reveal its secrets. Though George Washington Carver claims that’s how he got his secrets from the peanut – by talking to them.
I watched the woman who cleaned our house. Her favorite thing was to polish the silver. We took it for granted, but she saw the silver pitchers and tableware for the beautiful objects they were. She would dip into the silver polish and make swirls on the coffee pot, taking her time, admiring the object and admiring her work.
When it was done to her satisfaction, she would hold it out to me. “Ain’t dat purdy?” she would say.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame was done by such artisans.
The object of the work was not to throw up a pew as fast as you could; everything that could be embellished was embellished.
Each artisan was creating his own glory to God that would be part of the greater whole. They were not chipping stained glass, they were building a cathedral. They also did not sign their work.
In my days as a fundraiser, I often heard the Archbishop of San Antonio speak. He had a favorite story for those of us who served the homeless.
He told about a homeless person who came to the back of the chancery one day for food.
The Archbishop was busy writing and annoyed to be interrupted from his important work. He stormed into the kitchen, he said, threw some bread on the table, slapped some turkey on it, slammed down a mustard jar and said, “HERE! Here’s your food.”
The man who had asked for food picked it up, and then put it down. “I can’t eat,” he said. “I can’t swallow this. You were so angry when you made this. It wasn’t made with love.”
When my “important” work has been interrupted, and I feel impatient, I think back on the Archbishop’s story.
It keeps me from yanking and pulling on my protesting granddaughter when I put her sweater on her. I can pause while I do this necessary work and look at the sheer beauty of the polished skin on her arm, and the freckles scattered on that precious and protesting nose. I can do my work with a loving hand.
If I’m putting on the sweater to protect her from the cold, because I love her, I can let her know this in the way that I do it.
I want to acknowledge each of you for the work that you do. May it bless and bring dignity to you.
For all the times you dotted an “i”, wiped a runny nose, sent a thank you card, listened to a trouble co-worker, took out the garbage on a rainy morning, picked your husband’s underwear up off the floor for the 100th time, crawled around on your hands and knees in the dark looking for a lost “wubbie,” calmed an angry client before they went into your boss’ office, asked your friend, tenderly, if she’d considered that her son might be doing drugs, the phone call you took after you couldn’t take one more, the time you really looked at someone’s photo of their grandchild, fixed a flat for a woman you’ll never see again, listened to an Ancient Aviator’s WWII story, cleaned the toilet, changed a dirty diaper, worked a piece of plastic out of the printer, unscrewed a mayonnaise jar for your grandmother, smiled when there was no reason to smile and no one else was smiling … and all the other works of your life known only to you.
On this Labor Day acknowledge yourself for all those unnoticed labors of love you have done throughout your life.
And claim the dignity of your work. Pause for a moment and appreciate to yourself the love you have put into the hardest, smallest, most tedious, demanding, most un-noticed and unacknowledged parts of your work, which is your life.
And finally, acknowledge yourself for all the times you went for help and found your personal power by being the helper and making your contribution to the circle of life – the times you coached your coach, shrank your therapist, placed your placement counselor, cured your doctor, healed the healer, organized your boss, supported your support staff, led your leader, followed your followers, held your accountant accountable, taught your teacher, ministered to your minister, mothered your mother, fathered your father, and allowed yourself to be child to your children.
Susan Dunn, MA, Marketing Coach,
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