Work with Your Hands, Whatever You Do

Photo via Lennart Tange.

Photo via Lennart Tange.

We think we have it easy. People in times past worked harder than we do, that’s for sure. Even simple tasks, like filling a bathtub with warm water or baking a loaf of bread, once required a great deal more labor than they do now. Now, of course, we just turn a lever, or press a button. When hungry, we grab a bag from the freezer, drop it in the microwave. Daily life requires much less of us in terms of physical effort.

A lot of our jobs aren’t much different. More than a few of us sit all day at a computer. We answer calls, write reports or input data. We rarely venture outside our cubicles. There’s a breakroom down the hall if you want a snack.

We certainly have it easier than did, say, the guys who dug the now discarded canals across our country. Compared to the exhausting efforts put out daily by people in the past, our lives are physically easier. Yet, we suffer from a different malady. For us, most work is pointless, and work, when it is divested from meaning, becomes mere toil.

Imagine being a farmer in the early 20th century. Your work was hard. It took all you could give, often more. At the end of the day, though, you could survey what you had done. A repaired fence, a planted field, a herd of healthy livestock, all bore testament to your labor and you could rest knowing you and your family were stronger for your work.

Imagine being a craftsman around the same time. Maybe a potter. Maybe a furniture maker. You also work hard. As you do, you gain more and more knowledge about your craft. Your skills get better. At the end of the day, you can measure your productivity in concrete terms. The more you produce, the more you sell. There is a direct link between the market and the work of your hands.

Both of these, the farmer and the craftsman, represent ideals of stewardship and discipline now missing from our culture. Now, we have people who receive regular paychecks more or less divorced from their productivity.

Moreover, the link between work and provision has become indirect. Now, you go to work, sit at your computer, do whatever you do and, every two weeks, a paycheck shows up. The relationship between that money and what you actually did for it is much more abstract than it would be if you made your living selling beans you raised.

This isn’t an argument that we all ought to move back to subsistence farming, as appealing as that fantasy might be. Instead, I am trying to point out that while we may have gained something in terms of ease and riches, we’ve lost something too. We’ve lost independence and connection.

Our souls long for our work to be meaningful and modernity has rendered work meaningless for many of us. Most of us don’t even know why we work except to pay bills. We are left in a hazy, stress-filled mess by jobs we wish we could escape.

One way to improve this situation is to work with your hands whatever you do. This is especially important if you are a so-called “knowledge worker.” If you are one of those people who churns out nothing but data, you need to find time to build something more concrete.

I’m not saying you have to quit your job and become a blacksmith. You don’t have to give it all up and try making your living from whatever you can grow in your backyard. But, you do need to find some time to make something, something real and tangible that you can looks at and say, “I did that.”

It might be a garden. It might be paintings. It might even be blog posts. What you make doesn’t matter in the long run. What matters is that you engage in some work that reminds you of your ability to have a direct and positive effect on the world.

Work like that strengthens the soul. Work like that is its own reward. Work like that leads you to ask questions. You might find yourself asking why you can’t do such rewarding work all the time. You might find yourself looking for ways to center your life on your craft. You might begin to see most contemporary work and the systems it supports for the hollow things they are. You might realize the point of your life is not merely to consume something. You might realize that the point, above all, is to build something that lasts.

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