Labor and work

There are many different types of work. Colloquially, we often refer to these as blue collar white collar, or perhaps invoke terms like skilled labor or manual labor.

But there are subtler differences, even within the broad categories above.

At the moment, I’m thinking of this in terms of the subtle distinction between labor and work.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines work as: Something that is or was done; what a person does or did; an act, deed, proceeding, business. Labor, on the other hand, is An instance of physical or mental exertion; a piece of work that has been or is to be performed; a task.

The two words are definitely connected, yet importantly different. Work is a general term for accomplishing something, whereas labor seems more specific. Labor might be menial or it might be especially difficult – an exertion. Or it might be both.

Labor is where I find myself at home.

In the white collar world I seem to have found myself in, I imagine labor as that state where you can work hard at all hours of the morning or night. Where you can caffeinate yourself to the point of being a somnambulant zombie Рcapable of executing tasks successfully while in a state of virtual unconsciousness.

It is adding value by working hard. It is checking things off the list and moving things forward. It is working past your physical and mental capacity and yet still getting still getting it done.

A teacher of mine use to quip never let thinking get in the way of thought.

And I’ve started to feel this way about what I’ve come to think of as labor. You can get a lot done in such a state, but, being somewhat absent from the actual happenings, there’s something valuable missing there as well.

It seems our national norms are leaning towards labor. Towards burning the candle at both ends and pushing yourself to just below – or possibly past – the point of burnout.

But going this route devalues the importance of work. It implies that all you really need is a pulse and, perhaps, an opposable thumb.

Labor is good, and labor is necessary, but work is more a vocation – requiring hands and brains, manual effort and thought. It requires being present. It is an experience. It is an art.

It’s still work, no doubt. Not always pleasant and not always fun. But valuable and meaningful nonetheless.


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