Getting Comfortable with Work

“Chop wood, carry water,” Ed told me sitting in his office. Ed was a colleague of mine and a Buddhist, so this was his response to the trials and tribulations of the workaday world. To me work was a much bigger venture. It was your career and your destiny. When things went wrong at work, it was a major crisis.  My thinking was how can I make this better?

But Ed was more matter-of-fact about the whole idea of work. He was a low-keyed educational psychologist that believed in energy chakras and hypnosis as much as Jungian theory or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Work was just one part of living to Ed. Work was not a gift, it was a necessity, and like food, water, and air, you didn’t think about it much, you just did it. In the big picture, work moved everyone and everything, forward.

I wanted to ask Ed, what about all those people who are passionate about their work? What about those people that say they can’t believe they get paid to do what they do, because they love it so much? Some people don’t just chop wood and carry water. Their work defines them and gives their life meaning.

Yet, if I was honest with myself, and thought about all the different kinds of work I’d done in my own life, I’d have to admit much of my work was in fact, chopping wood and carrying water. How many beds have I made, dishes have I washed, and meals have I prepared in a life time? I spent way more time doing these menial tasks than anything I did in my career as an educator.

I read a book many years ago by Carol Shields called The Stone Diaries.  It was about a woman at the turn of the century who’d worn a path leading out from her back door to her garden and root cellar.  That path happened because every day she walked it to gather the fruits and vegetables needed to feed her family. It was mind-numbing, walking this same route on a daily basis.  But if she didn’t do the valuable work of food gathering, who would?

I know people who actually are happy doing mind-numbing work.  I also know someone who got burned-out doing work he thought was a passion. My friend Steve was a postman for more than thirty years delivering mail on the same routes over and over again, but still he felt content and happy with his job.  Mike, on the other hand, a gifted woodcraft artist, abruptly quit carving wood last year and moved to Seattle. His comment: “The art took too much out of me.  It just became work. Frankly, I dreaded doing it.”

As I sit here typing on my computer I’m wondering if writing has become my work. Has it moved from a passion to chopping wood and carrying water? Maybe it’s not so bad, doing something you know and that feels comfortable.  It doesn’t hurt either, when your back rest is a pillow.

3 thoughts on “Getting Comfortable with Work

  1. When I get burned out with various types of intellectual work, my go-to routine job to fantasize about is painting walls. I love the zen of mind-numbing work at times, but that would likely change if I had to do such work full time.

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