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The excellencies of pursuing manual labor

Friday, 16. October 2009 by Renee Ellison


Yeshua was a carpenter. By that choice of a career, He baptized all manual labor with the fire of a hidden splendor. Carpentry, meal-making, mechanical engineering, fixing broken things, sewing, gardening, cleaning/sorting are all creative acts, bringing into existence what was not there before. Manual labor IMPROVES things, gracing our humble lot in life with progress, whether it be building the very walls that tower around and bring warmth to our social relationships, or placing a well-cooked meal in front of a visiting needy neighbor. We both SEE these practical changes and FEEL them. A well-ordered room that was just recently in chaos, a new door sawed and hammered through the wall giving easier access to the next room, give us profound emotional satisfaction.

For years now, the culture has worshipped the high brow professional jobs, along with middle managers and corporate presidents, with envy and jealousy, and has rewarded it with outlandish financial indulgence that often seems disproportionate to the actual sweat equity involved. But, despite the money, when these jobs are examined more closely they often turn out to be not so great after all.

People trapped in these jobs now may have cash, but no TIME to enjoy it with, and often their relational lives are in shambles, due to their preferring (or succumbing to the pull of) the relentless demands of the job. Long-term, they find that the external expectations and regulations and paperwork have become suffocating. The logistics of actually doing the job—sandwiched in between hundreds of workers both below and above—begin to tax their nerves irreversibly as they grow older. Having no lid on the time REQUIRED to do one’s profession, whether it be piloting the midnight run of the international airlines or drawing up legal papers to present in court for the next URGENT case, all can become a nightmarish slavery. Stress begins to eat away at the substance and core of a man’s life. And some men in their middle forties, trapped in them, have chosen to finally walk out of them, by choosing another way. In hindsight we may have mistakenly thought that there was more intellectual content in a “brain job” than there actually was.

In his new book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford describes just such a liberating discovery. He discovered later in his own life that manual labor (entrepreneurial endeavors) can be a glory! The short old fable called “Acres of Diamonds” is another such tale. In it, a couple leaves home in search of diamonds (corporate prestigious jobs?) only to return home empty-handed, where they discover them in their own back yard (the joys of rolling up their sleeves in simpler, entrepreneurial pursuits?).

The author of the Soulcraft book describes how he earned a Ph.D. in psychology, but after years and years of the dry academic life, he gave it up for fixing motorcycles in his own garage! He describes how we have wrongly thought, as a modern culture, that “if the work is dirty, it must be stupid.” Conversely, history shows “Where there is building, there is debris!”

Crawford discovered the joys of diagnosing his own challenges and then accomplishing them, having control of the entire process from start to finish, if even in addressing the needs of one broken motorcycle. By regaining control over his own outcomes, he found life became enormously satisfying to him. The sense of control over an honest work-life became tremendously rewarding. The spirit of self-reliance in an abundance of additional areas returned to him. Rather than constantly needing the aid of an expert, a specialist to maneuver all of life’s demands…he began to enjoy figuring it out himself. While our culture marches inexorably in the other direction, where

having fewer occasions to be responsible is preferred, he quietly tinkers to the beat of a different drummer. Our teenagers, by the scores, having bought the lie even further—being blindly raised in it—have grown to have fewer and fewer expectations to be responsible

. Instead of bringing the freedoms they had hoped for, it has brought boredom, dullness and stupor. To fill the void, they go watch another movie, or surf the internet. They imagine life is progressing, but they are only engaged in doing figure 8’s.

In contrast to this mental inertia, the hours a teenager spends under the careful eye of an adult mentor, learning to take control of his own future, cultivates and refines skills he needs to artfully and aggressively take dominion over all his future personal realm of family and business. For guys, purposefully gaining the skills to build one’s own future home debt-free by hand, for example, and for gals the ability to serve a well-seasoned pot of soup rather than dull mush to the hungry, and then to play Chopin when her work is done (thereby gaining an outstanding reputation for being a refined and capable woman) ought to become passions…worth beating it out of bed every morning to learn MORE. Instead, too often in too many homes nowadays the mental grit and determination and tenacity and hours and hours of EXPERIENCE spent in gaining a skill are lost in the pillows of the couch.

Crawford concludes with the injunction to cast a doubtful eye on our society’s current conclusions and realize that “There is happiness in your hands!” Where have we heard that before?!

  • “but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more; and that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and [that] ye may have lack of nothing.” (1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12, KJV)

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