After I graduated from college I spent a year working in Puerto Rico, building an interactive model of the economy for the Governor and his aides. I did have to scramble at first: I didn't know the computer language I was supposed to be programming in (didn't know any programming at all, actually), and econometrics had been my worst grade in college. But after a very steep learning curve, the job was rather relaxed.
Things changed the following year in Philadelphia, after my long-term boyfriend dumped me. I threw myself into my job then because it was like anesthesia, and because it gave me an illusion of purpose. There was nothing grand or noble about my labor, no deeply-rooted work ethic or redeeming social value. I worked because my job was the one place I could build something, or at least re-build my self-esteem. Maybe that was the start of what I now understand work to be.
Yesterday at my book group we discussed several of the biographies of 19th century builders within Brave Companions. Conversation drifted to how hard it is to teach kids the value of hard work these days. We've read the Little House books to our kids and pointed out the many chores Laura and Mary had, noting (for our kids' edification) how easy their lives are in comparison. We bemoan how our kids moan about being asked to clean the toilet, forgetting how little we did at ages 8 and 10 and 14. Then we storm about how important it is to get kids to do chores as if using a bit of cleanser on the indoor plumbing is just as important as hoeing the garden so the family will survive a bitter prairie winter without starving.
Note to self: Kids are smart enough to realize nobody's going to go hungry because there's a minor ring in the pot. When a child is hungry -- whether it's for attention or success or mastery of something or comfort or food -- he works with vigor and perseverance (and generally without persuasion) to get what he needs. Hunger teaches viscerally what we're trying to teach philosophically. And I wonder how we can adjust our lives so we feel more of that hunger, instead of just talking about it.
FOLLOWUP: I just read this post by a literary agent and it gives me ideas. Good ideas. Fear and hunger are closely related.
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Staring at a mountain and knowing you'll have to scale it can be daunting. There are times when I'm exhausted and juggling butcher knives while running in circles blindfolded and it feels less impossible to keep going than to slow down, because if I stop I'll have to start again.
I don't really know how you teach a child how to deal with that, other than to tell her to focus on the trail at her feet instead of the minuscule line barely visible at the top of the mountain. So much of life -- including work -- comes down to focusing on what you have to do, when you have to do it. The other part involves figuring out what you're supposed to do, and deciding if you're going to say yes.
No answers here, but if you have ideas, I'd love to hear them.