Legacy of Hard Work

I had the technical nightmare from hell ALL LAST WEEK.  Not a few hours, not a couple days, the entire week.  Apparently my satellite company doesn’t believe in overnight delivery.  And about four days into the computer outrage, our phones gave out as well.  Now, I live in a rural area, and when there’s neither phone nor internet, helplessness is magnified.  My reaction is rage, since vulnerability isn’t in my vocabulary, but I actually did a decent job of it keeping cool if I do say so myself. 


Mostly, I wanted to know why me?  Why now?  What’s this about?  Understand, I make my living by being available digitally, and when my machine closes down, so must my work to all intents and purposes.  I was particularly geared up to get a heap o’ jobs accomplished, especially after the lazy 4th of July daze, and here my partner, my buddy, my mainstay, my web connection decided to take a holiday.  It was inscrutable to me, and the stars said nothing.  I contemplated, and drew cards.  I stared at the wall, and thought of the practical list someone gave me, with tasks to accomplish when business is slow.  Perhaps one of these would be productive use of this oh-so-excruciatingly-unproductive time.  I considered working in the garden, writing articles, practicing Adobe or php. 


What I ended up doing was far removed.  A few days ago, four boxes arrived for me.  They contained the daily journals of my grandfather, which he kept for many years during the first half of the 1900s.  I have only read one random notebook so far, but I know this reading is as complete a reason as I could ask for my technological breakdown.  If not forced, I’d never have opened those boxes anytime soon.  It had been my intention to read them when less pre-occupied with making a living, some years hence.


But the experience of living vicariously with this man – of whom I have no memories, though in fact I was about four years old when my grandfather died – through his diary, has already opened up huge doorways of possibility in my little old mind.  It is moving, and awesome, and just plain significant that he lived those eighty years ago in such a different way from anything we know now; that I am descended from such a man as he.  If this sounds egotistical, I assure you I mean this in a universal sense.  Others my age who are informed about the intimate lives of their grandparents surely know this realization: how fragile our dreams, how limiting our perceptions.


For now, let me mention just one aspect of his life.  The man worked like the devil.  He farmed and shepherded in a steep Vermont valley, laboring through months of sub-zero temperatures and then other months of nothing-but-haying, with a bottomless list of chores and repairs and innovations in between.  Work was slightly relaxed, but not abandoned on Sundays, and otherwise constant.


Now here’s the thing:  his writings tell me these facts of his life, but they do not in any way mention what it was like to work, and to work so hard all the time.  The journal is not without emotion, and careful thought is given to several subjects, but he did not consider his attitude towards work to be worth noting.  He cut wood, he did the haying, that’s all.  A simple report.


Maybe such a cavalier attitude towards the way one spends the majority of time is common to masculinity everywhere.  Nonetheless, what a contrast it is to me and all first world civilizations, who seek the best expression of self through work.  We expect, eventually, to achieve a satisfying, well-fitting occupation that allows us to achieve personal goals without undue drudgery.


Was my grandfather deficient in the intelligence necessary to escape such hard work?  Not a bit of it: he was well educated and many of his notes are about the books he’s reading.  He worked hard because it was natural to him, like gathering nuts is natural for squirrels.  Most of our ancestors – save, perhaps, those of the ruling classes – worked much harder than we do. 


The fact that my grandfather worked so diligently inspires thought about how that impulse is translated to me, and that’s why I’m telling this story.  Gramp was a farmer, and I’m in business, but in general terms, the two are both about work.


In your business, the straightforward work of it often causes stress or depression, because we have a self perception these days that demands we take care of our dreams.  We know that ignoring mental anguish is unhealthy.  We no longer respect mindless rote labor.


But we also know that our level of satisfaction in work depends chiefly on our attitude towards it.  If our ancestors worked without questioning the labor, we can too, if we are confident it will advance our goals. Much more, we can love the work; we can respect the health it gives us, we can use the time productively in one way or another.


A deluge of orders, or meetings, or petty crises, or whatever else demands going the extra nine miles for your business can be an opportunity, if you take it.  For the human frame and condition, work of any sort is a legacy and also a blessing.  We may have learned how to manipulate it more finely, but the ability to untiringly set to and accomplish work is always ready and waiting.


And then there are those of us who feel best when working, who enjoy our work to the point of obsession.  Had I been complaining about drudgery in my work?  Not at all.  To the contrary, work thrills me every day; I happily spend long hours at it.  Yet the technical failures around me last week, and the subsequent reading in my grandfather’s journal brought home the acute dependency on the internet I seem to have developed.  Work is an urge with me.  When my primary tool is broken, what can I work on?  What good am I unless I’m hard at it? 


So, for me, to be forced to lounge on the chaise and flip those old pages from 1933 was surrender to cosmic dictate, for once ignoring my tearing urge to be productive and Johnny-on-the-spot with clients and all that jazz.  This time, letting go of that ancient compulsion to work was the techno-storm message.


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