Labor versus work

I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World for that last couple of weeks.  It is providing context and depth to my intuitive understanding of generosity and gift-giving, helping me to appreciate the rich history of gift-giving, which, I had forgotten, forms the social underpinning of most societies throughout history (except for today, of course).

Hyde is very specific with his language, and in his chapter on The Labor of Gratitude he is quick to clarify the difference between “labor” and “work.”  There’s enough great stuff here that the right approach seems to be to quote liberally:

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will.  A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor.   Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.  Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them.  Paul Goodman wrote in a journal once, “I have recently written a few good poems.  But I have no feeling that I wrote them.”  That is the declaration of a laborer…

…One of the first problems the modern world faced with the rise of industrialism was the exclusion of labor by the expansion of work.”

Labor isn’t better than work, but it is characteristically different, its product is different, the conditions for creating it are different.

The simple question for reflection is: will your success (short and long-term) and happiness require you to labor or just to work?  And if labor is part of the equation, do you create the conditions in your life that will allow you to labor?  Are you not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor?”  Has your work grown so much that it has essentially crowded out every last moment you had to labor?

This is one of the big fights of the modern era.  Email, meetings, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, jokes from your buddies, news and TV and, of course, all the actual work you have to do….these mountains are big and growing, and we’ll never finish scaling them.

I for one feel like I’m in the trenches every day, fighting to labor.  Some days I win, a lot of days I lose.  But I’m positive that I have to keep on fighting.