Monday, March 20, 2023

Work And Hobbies

I enjoy cooking. I enjoy eating out as well, but the truth is that I'm always a little disappointed when 3 p.m. rolls around and I realize I won't get to make anything because we have a dinner invitation.

I have friends who dislike cooking. They say prayers of gratitude for delivery, take-out, and cold cereal.

And then there are those who feel trapped by cooking. These are often parents who feel the daily pressure to prepare three squares a day for the family. Sure, there may have been a time when they enjoyed cooking, and that day may return once the kids are fending for themselves, but they now find themselves on an endless, and often thankless, treadmill. 

For folks in the first two categories, cooking is either a hobby or something easily avoided. For those in the third category, however, cooking is work. I had a friend once tell me, "That's not cooking; it's meal prep." Long ago ago, I did a similar thing with gardening. I unconsciously began to label the things I enjoyed doing -- like tending the roses -- as gardening, while I considered everything else to be yard work.

As a culture, we value work. We demonize those who won't or don't work. We fret that our children won't embrace the work ethic. Many of us identify ourselves, at least in part, with our job title. There is a widely held belief that work has a moral benefit for both the individual and society and that hard work elevates us, even when it is obviously grinding us down. Indeed, we tell our children that they can be or do anything they want, just so long as they're willing to work for it.

At the same time, surveys of Americans regularly find that between 50 and 80 percent of us report that we are disengaged from, dislike, or outright hate our jobs. This isn't just a post-Covid or "great resignation" phenomenon. Indeed, both of those phenomena tend to be more about new opportunities for people to give up the old job and try something else. No, our dissatisfaction with work goes back decades, maybe centuries. It's not just "lazy kids" or creeping "socialism," but all of us, or at least more than half of us, who plug away only because we feel we must.

So many come to resent the work in our lives that the word work has become synonymous for feeling compelled to do things that you would rather not be doing. It's not hard work we resent, but rather the compulsion, the tedium, the repetition, the endlessness of it. There's always another damned meal to prepare. The weeds never stop growing. And we work ourselves into philosophical pretzels to convince ourselves that grimly sticking to it is a virtue. We might even grit our teeth and pronounce, despite it all, "I love my work!" because, after all, work is a moral good and resenting it is, therefore, a moral failing.

This isn't just a problem with what is insultingly called "unskilled labor." You can find this attitude toward work everywhere: people with their heads down, going through the motions, and feeling trapped, both by the work itself and by the morality we've built up around the mythology of the so-called work ethic, which in part contains the corollary of "don't complain."

I know a man who literally works in a coal mine, a job that is the very definition of hard, dirty work. He rarely talks about what goes on down in the mines because, as he says, "It's the same ol' same ol'," but one day he regaled us with a long, detailed, and exciting story about how he had figured out how to overcome an unexpected and challenging obstacle. He felt stimulated and proud. He didn't say, "That's why I love my work," but his whole attitude told that story.

It's not work we resent, but rather the mind-numbing, repetitive nature of so much of what we call work. When we get to use our critical thinking skills, when we get to make real decisions, when we get to see that our work makes a real difference: that's when we are truly elevated. It's not the work that's important, it's the knowledge that we are doing something meaningful, either personally or for the greater good.

I've spent most of my adult life amidst young humans who work as hard, if not harder, than anyone I've ever known. They don't do it for money. They don't do it because they've had tasks set for them. They don't do it because it's always joyful. On the contrary, every day involves conflict, pain, and tears. They do it because what they are doing, their play, is deeply meaningful. In everything they do, they see the difference they make in their world, for themselves and for others. They are thinking critically and making real decisions.

I understand how people might look at our play-based preschool and wonder how the children will ever learn about hard work. And I know that most of the children will move on to public schools that are all about learning the harsh lessons of the work-a-day world. Most of them will learn the lessons of feeling trapped, of dealing with it, of playing the mind-games required of the so-called work ethic, of pretending it's all gardening, when it's clearly nothing more than yard work. 

Yet still I persist in the radical idea that childhood is for play. The coal mine may be coming. The grindstone may be in their future. But I will not be the person to subject them to it because my hope and expectation is that the children who come my way will go on to live meaningful lives. I want them to know what it feels like to be self-motivated, to be lifelong learners, to be connected to the purpose behind what they spend their time doing. I want them to know that if they find themselves in jobs that don't provide that, then they can find hobbies that do and that it's perfectly okay for one's hobbies to stand at the center of one's life's work. 

The man who works in the coal mine builds motorcycles. He once found a photograph of a bike he admired, tacked it up on the wall of his garage, then spent his evenings and weekends building his own, perfect replica. He prides himself on doing it on a budget, which meant that he sourced parts from classified ads and junkyards that he then refurbished himself. And when he couldn't find the part, he literally manufactured it right there in his own garage, often taking months getting it just right. 

He is playing, just as the young children play: working hard, thinking critically and creatively, overcoming challenges, and learning. "We are here on this earth to fart around," writes Kurt Vonnegut, "don't let anyone tell you different." That is what I want the children to know. That is what I wish everyone knew.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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