Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
I’m not proud to admit this, but I have a personal trainer. His name is Frank, and he’s a masochist. If he’s not inflicting pain, he’s not doing his job.
“Pain is just weakness leaving the body,” he gleefully intones as I groan under the weight of an obscenely heavy bench press. “You don’t pay me for a good time. You pay me for results.”
The question, of course, is why I am paying him at all. Whatever possessed me to think that I need a personal trainer? At my age, it’s not like I’m going for the chiseled effect. I’m just looking for a little tone and a modicum of structure as the center of gravity continues its inexorable arc downward. Frank understands, but after all, this is a workout, and we are working on my body, and work, as he lectures me, involves pain.
Have you ever noticed how our entire culture is dominated by the metaphor of work? You’re eating at a posh restaurant, and the waitress hovers over your table and asks, “Are you still working on that?” How come she never says, “Are you still playing with that?”
Even people who play games are working. As in getting better, improving their skills, their score, their total performance. Kids, too, are working. The idea that they would go out and just play is, like, so yesterday. They are working on developing life skills, socializing with others, taking direction, making sure they get a leg up on the competition that will define the entirety of their working life. Parents schedule formal play time for their children, which makes for more work all around. Left to their own devices, children engage in play naturally. The reason we structure their time is so it doesn’t interfere with our work.
And what about after you stop working? You have to work on that, too. You don’t just retire anymore and do nothing. That’s so low rent, unsuitable for the productive and gifted, who are compelled to continue their relentless quest for self actualization. So you work on a new career, new relationships, new vistas to explore. Perhaps you need a life coach, a workshop, an army of consultants to help you figure out how to stay young and active forever. It’s hard work, for sure.
And death? Bummer. But we can work to make sure it’s a good death.
The truth is, I’ve never really had to work hard for most of my life as a so-called adult. Oh sure, I’ve had jobs, a career, and when people ask me how I’m doing, I say, Man, I’m really working hard these days, I’d like to slow down and smell the roses, but there’s just so much work to do, ya know? And they nod their head in sympathy, because they’re working hard, too, and when people who are working get together, the first thing they talk about is how hard it all is.
But it’s not. The guy who is up on your roof replacing tile on a 110 degree summer day, he’s working. So are the migrants who are picking your fruits and vegetables, the people washing your dishes at the restaurant, the workers in the oil fields and coal pits who make sure the energy is flowing. I once had a summer job as a grain inspector, shimmying up box cars, breaking the seal and sticking a sampling rod in the corn and soybeans filled four feet from the top. Now, that was work. I finally found a better gig playing guitar at a local nightclub. No comparison.
My guess is that many of us are obsessed with the culture of work because we don’t know what it is anymore. After all these years, I’m still amazed that someone would actually pay me to do what I do: sit around critiquing ideas, writing policy briefs and giving other people’s money away. Or how about the moguls who drive around in their Lexuses and yack away on their cell phones, carving up the desert at one acre per hour? To quote Dire Straits, whatever it is, “That ain’t workin.'”
Perhaps that’s why we work on our bodies, to feel the exertion, the heat, the pain, to remind ourselves what real work is and why, if we are lucky, we don’t have to do it all the time.
Meaningful work. Maybe it’s an oxymoron. I don’t have the answer, but I’m working on it.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.