Labor Day is a marker in time, the end of a season and the beginning of one. As agrarian societies defined their calendars by events of the farm, the school gives shape to the year in contemporary America. Today's holiday originated as a labor movement observance intended to honor the worker with a break from work, yet it has evolved into the signal that the time of leisure, or simply the slacking off of August, is over. Pencils sharp, shoes shined, show up: September is here. Back-to-school is in the air, and everyone breathes it.
I am often struck by how hard everyone is working. Harder than before, it seems. To be stuck in rush-hour traffic in the early morning is to be surrounded by people who are dutifully making their ways to desks and benches and counters and nursing stations and keyboards and cement mixers and cash registers and stools. At the wheels of their vehicles, they may be blank-eyed or dazed; they may be nodding to the music of the radio; they may be dreamily watching nothing but the bumper of the car ahead. But what diligence they display! What patience! Workers of all kinds -- pick up trucks and limos in the same daily snarl -- are exactly alike in this. The whole population is driven by the discipline of work, with everyone taking the clock's demand for granted.
To notice this most mundane fact of life is to be amazed by it. The morning commute puts on full display what makes this nation so productive.
How did human beings come to this ingenious mode of organization? The myth is that life ``by the sweat of the brow" was a consequence of the Fall, the wages of sin, in which case work is defined by obligation and necessity. Work is burdensome, a defiance of how we're meant to be. If we could just keep August going forever, that's what we would do, no? But why, then, is September so universally marked by the burst of energy with which tasks are resumed? The thrill of the fresh start. Disclaimers aside, not even schoolchildren regret the return to class.
Work is by definition arduous, and when working conditions are unfair, work can be a kind of despised bondage. The labor movement, after all, was born in resistance to conditions of work that were crippling, exploitative, demeaning. Perhaps such misery is what the author of Genesis had in mind, and perhaps for the vast majority of humans down through history, work has had exactly that dehumanizing character. Perhaps for the majority alive today, it still does. Is America different in this, as in so much else? A privileged meaning of work? In honoring the American labor movement with a holiday, aren't we honoring the liberation of labor from just such a past? Unions, after all, as the bumper sticker says, invented the weekend. And August, too, for that matter.
The readiness with which Americans embrace September each year, and return to the job each morning, suggests that work freely chosen, and freely accomplished, is essential to the good life. The real meaning of the weekend, it turns out, is in how it changes the experience of the weekday. Can it be that liberated work is better than play? Is this what we mean by happiness? The poet Donald Hall locates that sensation in ``absorbedness," the being taken up in -- or taken over by -- the task at hand, whether a writer's task or a bank teller's. Hall associates the experience with looking up from one's work and finding that the hours have flown by. Why is there joy in that?
Everyone reads the newspaper over coffee and, confronted with evidence of relentless misery in the world, wishes for a way to make things better. But the wish is vague, and apparently pointless. Then we leave the house, plunging into the morning traffic, never thinking that by going off to work, we are doing exactly that -- our small part in the human effort to make things better.
The economy is organized to enable us each to live a decent life, while simultaneously contributing to an overall creation of the common future. Injustices continue to mar this picture, and the economy obviously sets winners against losers -- which is why the task of the labor movement is not finished. But work, considered individually (absorbedness) and socially (productivity), is a marvel of adaptation to the contingent and, yes, dangerous condition of life on the glorious earth.
Happy Labor Day.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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