"Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons." (Laborem Exercens, Bl. John Paul II, 1981)
With a stretch of rain finally past, the landscaping crew showed up to spread the bales of pine straw that had been sitting on our driveway for a week. I was out doing errands and came home to discover that John (7) had joined the crew of workers.
John learned how to properly spread pine straw--there is a technique--and worked for about four hours' straight, coming in only to get drinks of water for himself and the crew. This was a big job that took four grown men the entire afternoon to complete.
I was worried that John was just a little kid getting in the way of these grown men, so I spied on the whole affair to determine whether I should bring him indoors. I have rarely if ever seen John looks so manly. His face was serious as he looked to all the men for guidance, confirmation of where and how he should work. I know that as decent a worker John is for me at his daily chores, I've never seen him embrace work and achieve such masculine confidence as I saw during this project. Not one complaint or wheedling or expression of laziness, despite the heavy muscle work and that John's arms got all scratched up and itchy with pine sap. In fact, John showed some pleasure in bearing the (small) sufferings of Men Who Were Working.
"All this pleads in favour of the moral obligation to link industriousness as a virtue with the social order of work, which will enable man to become, in work, "more a human being" and not be degraded by it not only because of the wearing out of his physical strength (which, at least up to a certain point, is inevitable), but especially through damage to the dignity and subjectivity that are proper to him." (LE, Bl. John Paul II)
It was really neat to watch and made me think (yet again) how important it is for children--especially boys--to work in a meaningful way that they know deep down contributes to the family. They need to feel needed, necessary, to be providers.
And yet, in spite of all this toil-perhaps, in a sense, because of it-work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the terminology of Saint Thomas18, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes "more a human being". (LE, Bl. John Paul II)
When John came inside at the end of the day, I reminded him to go back out and thank the foreman: "Say, 'Thank you for letting me work with you today. I'm going inside for my dinner now.'" The foreman surprised us all by paying John--and eight dollars no less!
It was a Red Letter Day in this little boy's life. And it was a great reminder to us as parents about the value of teaching meaningful work . . . something that doesn't present itself easily or often in this modern world, something we will certainly have to pursue and carve out with intention.
"Awareness that man's work is a participation in God's activity ought to permeate, as the Council teaches, even "the most ordinary everyday activities. For, while providing the substance of life for themselves and their families, men and women are performing their activities in a way which appropriately benefits society. They can justly consider that by their labour they are unfolding the Creator's work, consulting the advantages of their brothers and sisters, and contributing by their personal industry to the realization in history of the divine plan"." (LE, Bl. John Paul II)
We got a glimpse of our son perceiving spreading pine straw with men as meaningful work. In contrast, I do not think he perceives his daily house chores as meaningful: He does them obediently, but I suspect they are seen more as meaningless exercise or done only because he is required to by me. So, the questions arise:
How do I convince children that housework is meaningful?
Do I perceive it as meaningful? As creating a joyful and comfortable home for our family?
If I perceive it as meaningful, am I expressing that properly or am I expressing that it is drudgery and pointless and something to be resented?
"Hence his instructions, in the form of exhortation and command, on the subject of work: "Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living", he writes to the Thessalonians74. In fact, noting that some "are living in idleness ... not doing any work"75, the Apostle does not hesitate to say in the same context: "If any one will not work, let him not eat"76. In another passage he encourages his readers: "Whatever your task, work heartly, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward"." (LE, Bl. John Paul II)
The Christian finds in human work a small part of the Cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his Cross for us. In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of "the new heavens and the new earth"88 in which man and the world participate precisely through the toil that goes with work. Through toil-and never without it. On the one hand this confirms the indispensability of the Cross in the spirituality of human work; on the other hand the Cross which this toil constitutes reveals a new good springing from work itself, from work understood in depth and in all its aspects and never apart from work." (LE, Bl. John Paul II)