The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have said it best:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
Labor Day, like so many other holidays, has lost much of its original meaning and slipped into what society may consider to be more comfortable clothing. Today it is the unofficial end of the summer vacation season. It is the last holiday fit for barbecues and recreational outings.
While nothing about this is inherently bad, it is far from the day’s original, late 19th century beginnings, when workers fought for more humane conditions. Back then, many people labored 12 hours a day every day of the week just to subsist. Children toiled in factories under unsafe conditions. The nation was undergoing a rapid change from agrarian to industrial labor, and the adjustment often was brutal and unrelenting.
But the one constant through both eras is the reward of honest labor — a reward that goes beyond the value of a paycheck. Often, this is associated with the word “dignity.” It lends a purpose to one’s life and marks him or her as making a positive contribution to society. It doesn’t necessarily have to be connected to a formal occupation.
Volunteerism is a hallmark of greatness in the United States. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that 62.6 million Americans contributed voluntary service in 2015, the latest year with available statistics. They provided 7.9 billion hours of service and contributed $184 billion worth of services.
Utah leads all U.S. states in volunteerism. With a little more than 3 million people, it boasts 844,000 volunteers contributing 170.4 million hours of service a year with a value of $3.8 billion.
When people choose to labor voluntarily for the betterment of their neighborhoods, their communities or just a friend or relative, they exhibit a higher level of understanding about the intrinsic value of work. At its core, labor equals independence. It is a statement of self-reliance that eschews the idea that a government or organization should provide everything for the people. It also renounces the value of get-rich-quick schemes and a culture that seeks material goods above all.
Russian author and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had firsthand knowledge of a system that devalued work, said, “Easy money had no weight: you didn't feel you'd earned it. What you get for a song you won't have for long, the old folks used to say, and they were right.”6 comments on this story
Working conditions have improved immensely in this country since the late 19th century, thanks in part to early labor union movements and legislative changes. Today, the nation is blessed with a low unemployment rate and, compared with the rest of the world, an enviable standard of living. Innovations, often the result of people laboring alone with little more than a dream, have made life easier and more productive.
None of that matters much if we, as a nation, lose sight of the value of work as its own reward. None of it will mean much if we don’t labor with the understanding that our efforts reflect our character.
To finish that Martin Luther King Jr. quote, he added, “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”