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[Chalice] Digging a Hole [Chalice]

Presented November 14, 2010, by Steve Wiegenstein

Listen to a recording of "Digging a Hole"
22:01 minutes - 8.83 MB - Digging a Hole .mp3 file.

Good morning. As you might have guessed from my title today, I have been digging holes lately. We moved to a new house, one without a clothesline - or as Sharon calls it, a "solar drying unit" - so I needed to put in a couple of posts. Then there were trees to be planted, bushes to be relocated, and so forth. All told, I've probably dug a dozen holes in the last few months, deep ones, shallow ones, wide ones, narrow ones.

Digging holes always reminds me of my uncle Ted, the man who taught me how to use a shovel when I was about twelve. My uncle Ted was a big, barrel-chested man who spent his life working with his hands, and when he picked up a shovel it was like a conductor taking his baton off the stand. He spent a couple of hours with me one summer giving me the basics, which he added to from time to time over the years. Some of Uncle Ted's rules: Keep your shovel sharp. A dull shovel is like a dull knife - twice the work for a sloppy job. Clean it off after each shovelful, unless you want to carry the same dirt around a dozen times. Always bend your legs, because your back will give out a long time before your legs do. And perhaps most important, never move dirt more than once. I'll come back to that one in a minute.

The thing I learned most notably is that there is an art and a craft to using a shovel. We use the term "unskilled labor" a lot, but in truth, there's very little labor that doesn't possess a skill. A brief look at some of my handyman projects will tell you that, not by the skill with which they were done, but by the obvious lack. I regret to say that my shoveling skills have declined as well.

I will say, though, that digging a hole does allow one time to think on other things. And as I dug my holes this late summer and early fall, I thought about labor, skilled and unskilled, and about the place of work in our lives.

When you think about labor, it's hard not to think about Karl Marx. Let's admit that the kind of crushing burden of labor that Marx was responding to no longer plagues us - as long as we define "us" to mean North America, Western Europe, and a few other countries. For the rest of the world, a little reading in Marx might not be such a bad thing. Ironically, the ostensibly communist countries of the world are among those where labor is exploited most cruelly. Although his remedies for the ills of labor have not come true over time, his diagnosis of part of the issue remains remarkably clear, a hundred and fifty years after he wrote. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx said:

"Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him."

Another touchstone writer of the 1840s and 50s, Henry David Thoreau, wrote about work as well in remarkably similar terms. Here's something he said:

"Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine."

There's something at the bottom of both these passages that I'd like to point out. That is the idea that it is not labor itself that enhances or diminishes a person, but rather the context in which labor is lived and understood. What do we think about working? What does work mean to us? That's the question we have to answer when we ask whether work ennobles us or degrades us, not what kind of work we do.

Also, there's the idea that labor spoils us for higher pursuits. Those words still ring true today, although in a different way. But again I would say that it's not the type of work that degrades us, but our attitude toward work, or the place we give work in our lives. Our standard call-and-response in social settings is "How are you?" "Keeping busy." Or variations thereof. And when we have neglected a friend, our common excuse is "I have been so busy!" Thus work is seen as something that separates us from our better selves, our truer natures. Or - work is the excuse we use to justify our failings. Are we really too busy to spend time with a friend? Not if we truly want to. Maybe "I have to work" is just a convenient stand-in for "I don't care."

And yet - I have an idea that this is not the best audience to talk to about the dehumanization of work. For one thing, I would guess that many of you would say that you enjoy your work; this congregation has a lot of professional people in it, and the National Opinion Research Center says that people in the caring, teaching, and protective services professions tend to be happier than people in other pursuits. For another, this is Quincy. People from this area are legendary for their work ethic; some might say, 'notorious.' We're the "thank God it's Monday" crowd. I remember some years ago, Sharon coming home from a visit to her hairdresser, amazed at her hairdresser's story. She and her husband, who had a job of his own, had started a successful business, which took up many, many hours a week, but she kept the hairdressing business too - not because they needed the money any more, but because she just liked working. She didn't quite feel right unless she was engaged in work.

I think sometimes we tend to associate job satisfaction with "importance," and I suppose there is some justification for that association. Of the job types associated with happiness in the survey I mentioned, the top 10 happiest jobs include clergy, firefighters, physical therapists, special education teachers, psychologists, and operating engineers, all of which we might say are important jobs. But financial services salespeople are also in the top ten, along with office supervisors. Doctors and lawyers are nowhere to be found. So maybe the key to fulfillment is not the importance of the job.

All of which begs the question of how we define importance. We know how American society in general values work: through money. Right? The financier's home in the Hamptons, the neurosurgeon's Lamborghini, serve as markers of the important role they play in our social system, keeping our bodies healthy and our businesses functioning. I'm sure plenty of people hold to such a belief, but unless you consider it more socially important to be able to turn a double play than to teach a child to read, I think we can put that notion to rest without further attention.

In fact, I think the connection so often made between the importance of work and the pay one receives for it is not merely off target, but completely without merit. Valuing our worth by the money we make is one of the great fundamental mistakes of modern life. I remember years ago, seeing my dad's paycheck for the first time. I was about ten years old, and even at that age was not completely ignorant of comparative wealth. I remember thinking, "Oh my gosh! We're poor!"

But of course we weren't poor, not by any standard that matters. The material circumstances of our lives were restricted, to be sure, but there was richness within those restrictions. I believed then, and still do, that my parents considered their lives to be fulfilling and meaningful, and that their work was a big part of that feeling. There's a turn of the century American writer named Elbert Hubbard, now obscure - born in Illinois, by the way - whose catchphrase was "We work to become, not to acquire." That's a good approach to the whole question of work and money.

And yet - "Dollars damn me," as Herman Melville once lamented. When you think of the number of great people whose work went unrecognized, ignored, forgotten, or scorned in their lifetimes, the idea that work can provide fulfillment simply in its own right seems a fantasy, or even something of a hoax perpetrated on the mass of humanity by the fortunate few who have work that is both fulfilling and profitable. Most of us work in order to live, and if happiness comes along with that bargain, we count ourselves lucky. We look around and see people working for a variety of reasons, but most of these reasons begin with the simple need to earn a living. Societal value, personal fulfillment - if those things come our way at all, they are likely to come at a financial cost. Also on that top ten list of happiest occupations are authors, painters, and sculptors - and I can assure you, there's no money in those fields. When I think about the most fulfilling work of my week, I usually think of the hour between five and six in the morning I spend on my own writing, work for which I am paid nothing and have minimal expectations of ever being paid. It's not the money that calls me to that work, and if I had to rely on that work for a living I would be a poor soul indeed. My job is my job, but my happiness is elsewhere.

So where does all this leave us in thinking about work? In the first place, I think we owe ourselves a reminder to honor and respect all work, the dirty, menial, and low-paying, just as we honor the work of the celebrated, high-paid, and powerful. You may be wondering what jobs were at the bottom end of the satisfaction scale. Laborers. Clothing salespeople. Packagers. Food preparation workers. Roofers. Cashiers. Furniture salespeople. Bartenders. Freight handlers. Waiters and waitresses. These are people who work for others, who have little control over the time or conditions of their work, who tend to our needs and cater to our whims. Give them a break. In brief, let's remember to be nice to the lady at Wal-Mart and to tip the server at Ruby Tuesday. They have their lives and their souls just like you, and let's not define people by their work.

And let's think about work in a broader sense. You may have heard this story before - it's a speechwriter's favorite, drawn originally from a parable told by St. Benedict. A traveler came upon three stonemasons at work and asked each in turn what he was doing.

The first said, "I am sanding down this block of marble."

The second said, "I am preparing a foundation."

The third said, "I am building a cathedral."

This story is usually interpreted to emphasize the importance of having a vision, of keeping a positive attitude, and so forth. But I would like to think of it slightly differently - not from the point of view of the stonemasons, but of the passing travelers. How many of us, passing by someone engage in work that pays little or nothing, work that is laborious or repetitious, would say to ourselves, "There's someone building a cathedral"? But it's true. Some of the greatest work of existence is done for very little money, or even for free. Raising children. Caring for the elderly. Passing on values. Engaging in the labor of political activity and involvement.

So I am back to my Uncle Ted and his advice. What's important about never moving dirt more than once? It means that you have thought about the end result of your job, that you've considered how big your hole is going to be and what direction it's going to go in, so that you don't find yourself digging out dirt at two in the afternoon that you already dug out at ten in the morning and didn't toss far enough. It means taking care with what you do, even if nobody else cares. It's about giving work the respect it deserves. Some of us build our cathedrals during working hours and are paid for it, well or not. For others, our cathedral-building happens in the off hours or on weekends. You can build a cathedral when you empower a family, or when you sustain a business, or when you teach a child - even if you're only teaching that child how to use a shovel properly.

©2010 Steve Wiegenstein

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Wiegenstein, Steve 2010. Digging a Hole, /talks/20101114.shtml (accessed July 6, 2020).

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