hanee birch

Meaningful labor

Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth.
Archimedes

In the natural world, a chipmunk, seeking to get out of the rain, digs a hole, with his hands, in the dirt. His digging is a means to getting out of the rain; in this sense, he is engaged in mean-ing-ful labor.

As we watch the chipmunk, we find ourselves engaged. Each act of his has a sort of meaning and necessity to it. His struggle to survive makes his play sweeter and his work more meaningful.

His work is not mechanical either, but is motivated by, and pursued with, emotion. We sense the interplay of light, attentive and urgent emotions with which the chipmunk labors.

A moment of watching a groundsquirrel is fascinating because the world we’ve accepted as a neccessity and a reality doesn’t seem to have the same kind of material, or real, meaning.

Back to ‘reality’

Turning towards our own world, we see a mother, seeking to feed her children, checking for formatting errors, on a computer screen, which represents a peice of paper, that her boss, a lawyer, has written on, to request compensation for a violation of a contract between two men she’s never seen, who are attempting to exchange financial securities. The mother uses the money she receives to buy a healthy package of applesauce for her child at the grocery store.

The mother may be happy or unhappy, depending on her disposition to the compensations of money or praise (the latter being the only direct exchange of labor for reward she has—except it would be more mean-ing-ful if she had tied the lawyer’s shoe for him to prevent him from falling).

But how do we explain to the child for what purpose the mother has left him in the care of nannies or schoolteachers?

If the purpose is for food, and the child is old enough he may be able to comprehend the connection between the meal he eats and his mother’s rather abstract labors, but he certainly cannot feel the connection. Excepting in any mathematical sense, there is no real connection at all.

The mother has gotten used to a world of abstract symbolism and if she wakes up for work each morning with a sense of urgency, it is not to a purpose, but out of a sort of momentum at best, or, more likely, out of a fear of what she might lose if she didn’t keep up her routine.


A world with no real connection between labor and needs is not a world I wish to be a part of. It is not a world of neccessity either.

It is up to us, as individuals, to reject meaningless and unnecessary work and to find ways to actively participate in the survival of ourselves, our local community, or the world at large.

hanee birch