For some time Garrison Keillor would do a brief spot on NPR called “The Writer’s Almanac.” He would share dates and times of special events in the past relating to authors of one kind or another, and he would end with a poetic recitation.” He always signed off with: “Be well; do good work, and keep in touch.” I think this is especially appropriate for us this Labor Day weekend. We know all about the idea of trying to “be well.” We know the difficulty, these days, of trying to “keep in touch.” But what can we say about “do good work”?
In my own mind, I see a difference between “work,” “labor,” and ‘’toil.” We might argue about the nuances that distinguish “labor” and “toil,” but “work” is an essential part of our life, and it was part everything since the beginning. It is NOT the result of the “Fall.” Adam was charged with cultivating the Garden before he met Eve or the serpent or tasted the fruit of the Tree. There was then, and there is now, something about work that speaks to the dignity of the worker. This is especially true when whatever it is that is being produced is in fact “good work”—well done, and worthwhile.
So much “work” today is aimed at producing what can be sold at a profit for others, bought by folks who usually don’t need it and too often can’t really afford it. But we have been convinced (brow-beaten) into believing they can’t live without it. Do we really NEED Instagram or Amazon Prime?
“Good work” by definition celebrates the dignity of the worker, but this dignity should also be respected by society at large. Let me play with a couple of word-pairs. Work is about activity that results in “production” and “creation.” If it’s truly GOOD work it will highlight genuine value, not simple convenience. Good work may be a cash crop, but it is never a cash cow. Now consider a married couple—their activity results in “re-production” and “pro-creation.” In both cases, what is the result of their activity is something that transcends them—it now has an existence beyond themselves. In literature, this is sometimes referred to as the “intentional fallacy”—the idea that a bit of writing can mean only what the author explicitly intended. But this is not the case—as JRR Tolkien put it in describing “The Lord of the Rings”—the story grew in the telling, and readers may well find in it realities that the author was unconscious of. If God is the ultimate Creator, Tolkien said, then humanity is blessed with the ability to be a “sub-creator”— not creating ex nihilo, as God did, but sub-creating from the materials God has already provided.
This weekend we celebrate people who have dedicated their lives to producing good work. It might be things so incredible we can scarcely imagine them (like the Hubble Space Telescope). Or it might be so humble and ever-present we don’t even consider it (like a zipper). But whoever they are, wherever they are, we salute you and want to join your ranks, to be those who produce good work—who truly and blessedly labor.