Saturday, September 03, 2005

Curious about Labor: What Does It Mean to You?

Lewis Thomas wrote, “Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.”

You may notice that I picked the Labor Day weekend theme for this Saturday’s blog instead of the hurricane Katrina topic. So many of my good storytelling friends have been affected by this terrible and devastating disaster, I wanted to wait a bit longer before I tackle that curiosity.

The amazing part about the word “labor” is the huge disparity of feelings about it and what it means. When I looked for quotations, I found that there were more quotes using the word “labor” than any other word I have ever searched. There were also so many different approaches to “labor” - both positive and negative.

Before I start sharing some of the quotes and my opinions, why don’t you take a moment to stop reading and jot down what the word “labor” means to you. When I think of labor, I think of:
  • Unions - even though I have never belonged to one, and yet know how much good and bad has been generated by them.
  • Working hard - coming in after a day of digging in the garden, moving heavy rocks and planting - but feeling great afterwards.
  • Giving birth - I can remember exactly the length of labor for every single one of my five children (most mothers can and will love sharing this fact with other pregnant women).
  • Labor Days in the restaurant - for my many years of restaurant work, I usually worked on the holidays and especially on Labor Day. If it rained and we were under staffed, I recall making lots of cash.

For me, the word “labor” doesn’t come with unfavorable connotations, but it certainly spans both ends of the scale for others. Here are just a few of the dozens and dozens and dozens of quotes:

  • Sophocles was succinct and definite in his beliefs, “Without labor nothing prospers.”
  • George Jean Nathan, however, viewed labor in a completely different way, “A life spent in constant labor is a life wasted, save a man be such a fool as to regard a fulsome obituary notice as ample reward.”
  • While the serious Henry A. Kissinger had this to say, “Art is man's expression of his joy in labor.”
  • And, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the thoughts of Gloria Steinem when she wrote, “No man can call himself liberal, or radical, or even a conservative advocate of fair play, if his work depends in any way on the unpaid or underpaid labor of women at home, or in the office.”

As I look over the other quotes that I chose to keep, I notice that the rest tend toward the positive. I am sure that you are not surprised:

  • One of our greatest speakers, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
  • One of my favorite speakers of today, Liz Curtis Higgs, said, “The head thinks, the hands labor, but it's the heart that laughs.”
  • Menander (342-292 BC) wrote, “He who labors diligently need never despair; for all things are accomplished by diligence and labor.”
  • While Liberty Hyde Bailey agrees with me (or I agree with her), “There is no excellence without labor. One cannot dream oneself into either usefulness or happiness.”

Before I sign off, there are two more quotations that I hope will make you think different thoughts from the usual - I know they did me, especially the last one:

  • Thomas Arnold suggests, “One's age should be tranquil, as childhood should be playful. Hard work at either extremity of life seems out of place. At midday the sun may burn, and men labor under it; but the morning and evening should be alike calm and cheerful.”
  • And, Alexander Pope wrote, “A person who is too nice an observer of the business of the crowd, like one who is too curious in observing the labor of bees, will often be stung for his curiosity.”

Oops! Is he referring to me? Please send your comments (hint!).