Preoccupied with work

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange loves to work. Lucky thing for him, because there’s so much of it.

(Lange) Contrary to the notion that the United States is a nation of hedonists who’ve lost the work ethic, we actually work longer hours, and are more productive, than the workers of any other nation. We often define define ourselves by what we do. Ask anyone what he or she does, and you get, “I’m a painter,” or “I’m a plumber.” Since the days of our settlement in the New World, we’ve cherished the notion that it’s a good and righteous thing to work.

I’ve long wondered who originated that daffy idea, and have discovered it wasn’t God. When God evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden, he announced that, having fouled up Paradise, they were going to have to work to eat. Work was a punishment, not a good idea! After that, you have to go all the way to Saint Paul to find it’s the righteous thing to do.

When I came to New England in 1950, to a school where work was in the curriculum, I began to notice frequent references to its virtue; as in this old hymn: Come labor on. Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain…While all around him waves the golden grain?

African-America slaves had little to look forward to but a few simple pleasures and the eventual release of death. Their songs were of paradise, when they would gather by the river in eternal rest. The hymns of the Industrial Revolution, written not by workers, but by folks of leisure, glorified the virtues of labor: “Awake, awake, to love and work! The lark is in the sky…”

During the 20th century, with Marxism afoot in Europe, workers became dissatisfied with the fruits of their labors, and distrustful of their employers. Coal miners, paid by the ton, often weighed on crooked scales, changed the words of one hymn to, “Keep your hand upon the dollar, and your eye upon the scale,” and formed the United Mine Workers union.

The Great Depression erased the illusion that, if you worked hard, you’d have a glorious life in the next world. Woody Guthrie sang, “You will eat by and by, in that glorious land beyond the sky. Work and pray, live on hay; you’ll get pie in the sky when you die — that’s a lie!”

So, though many of us enjoy — perhaps even love — our work, we rarely love it so much we’d do it for nothing. We work because we have to. But when I consider the thousands without work — with mortgages to pay, kids to keep healthy, cars to maintain — the overwhelming feeling is gratitude. I may have too much to do that day, and my last hour of sleep may be restless, but it sure beats having nothing to do, or lacking the ability to do what there is. Still, someday I’d like to go fishing just once without thinking about it.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and you know the rest.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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