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Snooty, snarky laborphobes

1 Thessalonians 4:11-12: Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

Lately I’ve been thinking about work. Specifically, physical labor.

This train of thought occurred to me one day while I was washing dishes. We don’t have a dishwasher in our house, so my girls and I take turns washing by hand. I’ve never minded washing dishes and have never wanted a dishwasher. What would it save me, after all, but a little bit of time and labor? On a household basis, a dishwasher always struck me as an overkill solution to a very simple problem, namely dirty dishes.

Now step outside our kitchen door and see our small farm. A farm takes physical labor. There’s no getting around the tasks of shoveling manure, putting up hay, cutting firewood, weeding the garden, and other necessary and often dirty tasks.

You’d be astounded by how many people find these tasks distasteful, but I like physical labor. It connects me, grounds me, makes me focus on WHY the dishes are dirty or the barn needs cleaning. I take more pride in a clean kitchen when I’ve washed those dishes by hand, or in a clean barn when I’ve shoveled the manure myself. What would avoidance of those tasks do, after all, except save me some time?

And what do most people do with saved time? They sit on their butts in front of a TV or a computer. Machines may make life less physical, but they don’t always make life more rewarding.

Physical labor has become anathema in our society. It’s no longer something any rational person should aspire to, unless they’re hopelessly dim of mind.

One time a disgruntled reader of this column, upon learning that my husband and I live on a farm, sent an email that denigrated my intellectual abilities based solely upon our daily tasks of cleaning the barn. “I’ve always thought that people who shovel manure for a living shouldn’t be writing columns,” he snarked, somehow concluding that the business end of a pitchfork affects the intelligence of the person applying it.

Many people now think they’re too good for labor. When we can’t engage a machine to do a task for us, we’ll engage another (presumably lowlier) person to soil their hands on our behalf … and we call this progress.

Don’t get me wrong, I love modern technology and how it’s improved our lives, but machinery has also separated us from our roots. When people conclude that they’re too “good” for physical labor, they think less of those who engage in it. If we work to raise our own beef and milk, are our minds inferior because part of the labor involved? Does it mean those who pick our crops or harvest our wheat or raise our children or fix our toilets are less worthy of respect because they work with their hands?

In short, too many people – like my critic – conclude that brainpower trumps muscle-power. It has become wrong or weird or abnormal to do something the old-fashioned way. If we take pleasure or are soothed by the satisfaction of a physical job well done, there must be something wrong with our intelligence.

It didn’t used to be that way. The lives of our forefathers were necessarily filled with the physical labor it took to survive. They also possessed the skills to make that labor efficient.

In his book “Better Off,” Eric Brende describes his 18-month stint among a quasi-Amish group he calls Minimites who live without modern conveniences. Brende and his wife discovered the unheralded and unappreciated level of skill that goes into physical labor. No one looks to make a job harder, after all. “Strange that our mental picture of life with simpler technology is peopled by drudges and unskilled laborers,” writes Brende. “This is doubtless a projection of our own experience – the mindless repetition brought about by automation over the last two centuries. Mary and I were discovering now that it wasn’t the sheer physical burden of unmechanized labor that was daunting. It was skill. To make matters harder, skill was not concentrated in a single specialty but scattered in dozens of little knacks and hundreds of bits of knowledge, all foreign to the button-pusher. On top of this, the foremost skill was balancing and integrating all the little bits into a single livelihood.”

These Minimites, because of their skill and efficiency, could turn their hands to anything that needed doing, whereas your average lawyer is helpless whenever the sink starts to leak.

With the thousand-and-one labor-saving devises we now have at our fingertips, we have become a nation of idlers, looking for ways to fill time. And as the old adage goes, the devil finds work for idle hands.

How many people fall prey to anything from online porn to flash mobs, merely because they’re bored? And how different would life be if people had “lowly” labor to honorably fill their time and reduce the compulsion to engage in destructive behavior?

Why is it more superior to jog on a treadmill – accomplishing nothing – than it is to muck out the barn? At the end of one, I have a sweaty body. At the end of the other, I have a sweaty body and a clean barn.

The human body was formed for labor. It’s a natural thing to want to use it, push it, accomplish something with it. Our nation was built from wilderness through labor. The desire to do physical work is not the sign of a weak mind – far from it. It’s an instinctive acknowledgment that we are using our bodies the way they were meant to be used, whether it’s swinging a scythe to harvest wheat, or hanging laundry in the morning sun.

As we head into a New Year and face an unknown future full of fiscal cliffs and other economic unpleasantries, keep in mind that those who aren’t afraid or ashamed to use their bodies in physical labor are often those who get by the best. The ability to DO often translates into multiple skills that allow people the flexibility to get by.

In the end when the bleep hits the fan, it’s the guy who knows how to clean the fan who will be enjoying the cool breeze.