I have heard many different philosophical explanations for the value of hard work and the dignity of America’s working class. They offer a response to those among the upper and upper- middle classes who look down on those in blue collar or service jobs either with disdain or paternalism. In responding to those who look down on the working class, it is only natural that people would search for meaning and beauty in manual labor and seek to elevate it through philosophical explanations. It is a worthwhile endeavor but one that often suffers from a lack of understanding. In seeking to speak the language of academics and make appeals to a class of people who have no conception of middle America, much gets lost in translation. It may be true to speak of the value a person can find in work that takes physical aptitude and results in a concrete product. But such a narrative leaves out the sore feet from standing all day, the sweat in the persistent heat of a summer day outside, or the tendonitis in a shoulder from years of manual labor. Abstract philosophizing about work often leads to romanticizing it and giving a narrow, trite image of noble poverty.
While it is true that manual labor has an inherent value, to focus primarily on the meaning of the activity and ignore the way that activity is experienced largely misses the point. However much we may wish to at times, separating meaning and experience is not how we operate as embodied human beings. While at times manual labor may provide a certain sense of fulfillment, often in the moment it just sucks. For better or worse, manual labor inherently includes suffering. Driving through the field in a big truck without A/C, loading it up with heavy hay bales in the middle of July means you will be thoroughly tired before you are halfway through, only to look up and see there is no hope of a break soon, all the while being too hot for comfort, and working up a good sweat to make sure all the small floating pieces of the dry hay stick to the back of your neck and itch like crazy. Haying season of course ends, and farming at least provides a variety of difficult, painful, straining, or exhausting tasks so at least you won’t be bored in your suffering. Not all manual labor has the same degree of variety however. For some, the difference is between working on one house or another, digging ditches in rocky soil or in clay, logging in a marshy spot or on a hillside, or butchering a cow or a pig. Perhaps you may fall into bed at night satisfied with a good day’s work, but that does not erase the struggle and suffering of the day which will haunt your body more and more with every new year of age.
The goodness and value of hard work must be held in tension with this element of suffering. To ignore this tension means to glorify not the reality of manual labor and real workers but instead to offer an incomplete vision of the truth. To brush off the toil and difficulty of manual labor is easy to do for those who have never done it or who have done just enough to make for good philosophical reflection but who have not had to look back on 20 years and look ahead to another 20. I am not rejecting the ideas of those who praise manual labor, nor do I mean to discredit hard work. But to see rightly the people in the working class and the work they do, it is worthwhile to consider how they experience their work, not how it should be experienced. Such philosophical consideration, while it is not invalid, runs the risk of fostering a new sort of disdain in which “educated” people look down on the working class for not appreciating or understanding their work in the way they should. This is certainly not the attitude most take, but it is part of the danger we face if we do not place hard work in its real context.
In reconciling the difficulty and suffering involved in manual labor with a robust recognition of its value, once again we can find help in considering how those who engage in such work experience it. Few people get a trade job because they think it will provide meaning to life. Many who work in trades or service industry jobs do so out of necessity, but some do so out of choice, having the opportunity to attend college but choosing trade school or the workforce instead. In either case, as human persons, however restricted by circumstances, no one is bound entirely by necessity and going to work each day is an act of agency for everyone. Anyone could flee from their responsibilities and the fact that many do not, says something about them and how they see their lives. Perhaps a feeling of fulfillment gets some people through the daily struggles of work and enables them to do it with pride and joy. But for most, continuing to work is a daily choice to act in a certain way without regard for changing feelings. Continuing to work may be an affirmation of the value of work but even more it is the affirmation of the value each person has for their lives. Each worker has something – hobbies, friends, family, life – worth working and suffering for.
When we consider the family, the meaning of a person’s work can extend beyond themselves to those they love. The very act of working and suffering becomes love. Just as love is not always felt but is a decision to act in a certain way, working often may be unpleasant but can become a part of that activity of love. To work is to give of your time, to do manual labor is to give of your body and strength, and to work to provide for your family is an act of self-sacrifice. It is made meaningful not by what you accomplished at work that day, but by seeing your children leaping through the sprinkler as the water sparkles in the summer sun or by sitting down around a campfire listening to the crickets competing with the crackle of the fire. The work is made meaningful by the life it serves, and the suffering is redeemed by the love for which it offers itself.
Eliana Kernodle is a Senior majoring in History.